By Talia Smith | Drama
A domestic worker worries about her missing son as she cares for her employer's children.

Sibongile is a domestic worker in South Africa, who watches over her employer’s little girl and maintains their home during the day while trying to stay connected with her teenage son, and has promised to celebrate her son’s academic achievements.

Her son, though, has troubles of his own. When he goes missing, Sibongile has no choice but to go to work, fulfilling her job duties as she worries about her son’s disappearance.

Written and directed by Talia Smith and inspired by real events, this intensely personal and intimate short drama is not just a snapshot of contemporary South Africa and the complicated nature of domestic work, but a tribute to the act of mothering itself, wherever it is called for.

Smith mined memories of her own “second mother” in her South African childhood, a woman named Susan who also lost her son while working for Smith’s family. As a result, the writing and storytelling have a closeness of detail and a deep interest in character that gives the film remarkable tenderness and empathy. The narrative fleshes out both halves of Sibongile’s “two families,” including both the son she empowers by providing for his education, and the little girl she nurtures and encourages as part of her job.

Both of these wells of affection are complicated by the many layers that Sibongile experiences as part of this work: she provides for her son, but she cannot see him as much as she wants, and her affection for her charge is genuine, but also is complicated by the class disparities that are in part a legacy of apartheid.

Often very emotionally intimate and socially observant work can be on the more meditative side, but the craftsmanship is deft. Winner of the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards, the film is full of indelible images but also dynamic, even muscular camerawork that offers thriller-like sequences, capturing the lively but impoverished and volatile milieu that Sibongile and her son live in.

These sequences are almost so compelling that they almost seem to run away with the film, but the storytelling always returns to the grounded, palpable heart of Sibongile, played in a remarkably full and rich performance by South African star Connie Chiume, who beautifully illuminates Sibongile’s many layers — some of which pull at her loyalties.

“Umama” ends on a note both heartwrenching and heartwarming for both viewers and Sibongile. It illustrates the powerful emotional labor that makes up much of mothering, full of nurturing, presence and attention. It is also the hard work and sacrifice that Sibongile goes through to give her son what she never had, thanks to the historical and economic legacies of apartheid. Both sides of Sibongile’s mothering have their joys and sorrows, made bittersweet by the fact that they are inseparable.

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