True/False: ‘The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman’ channels the intimacy of a mother and daughter

Director Rosine Mbakam bridges the gap between a Cameroon village and the audience with her personal connection to her mother and the place she grew up.

Documentaries often strive to tell the stories of foreign communities, but the native language of the subjects’ lives don’t always translate perfectly to the viewer. The director is tasked with bridging the chasm between the two worlds.

Director Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam is that unwavering bridge, and her personal connection with her native Cameroonian village allows her to expertly capture the lives of her mother and the community in her film “The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman.”

The film screened at True/False Film Fest on Saturday, May 8 at Ragtag Cinema, but was first released in 2018. In the documentary, Mbakam returns to the village she grew up in and reunites with her mother after spending seven years studying film in Belgium. Her mother interacts with Mbakam’s young son as she recounts stories from the past and catches Mbakam up on the status of the village.

On the festival’s website, it praises Mbakam's “level gaze” with the women in the village, neither looking down upon nor idealizing them. This sentiment is spot on. Mbakam serves as a conduit between the audience and the Cameroonian women to help each side understand the other.

The scene that best illustrates this dynamic involves her mother showing Mbakam how the village women care for their bodies in the week following childbirth. With the camera sitting at a steady wide shot, Mbakam watches and twitches in pain as her mother rubs a burning hot towel on Mbakam’s stomach and lower body.

Mbakam is noticeably hesitant and doesn’t fully understand the practice, yet she maintains an attitude of curiosity without any semblance of judgement. She asks questions that prompt her mother to explain her views, simultaneously bringing the audience to a better understanding of a different cultural practice.

In the film, the director isn’t trying to connect with a distant subject — the director is connecting with her mother — and that intimacy translates to the screen. Mbakam occasionally steps into frame, leaving the camera behind to interact directly with her mother and become part of the story. This dissolves the camera separating the audience from the film. The viewer watches right alongside Mbakam.

Stylistically, Mbakam also achieves this intimacy through voice-over narrations that give insight to how she feels about her relationship with the village. Her voice is often heard from behind the lens asking questions and verbally reacting to things that her mother says.

Fast cuts between shots are far and few between; instead Mbakam opts for lengthy shots to observe each person uninterrupted. Mbakam’s filmmaking genius rests in this waiting game — she lets the viewer sit while a woman grinds peppers, her mother folds clothing or while the mother and daughter flip through old photographs of Mbakam’s father. With each second, the viewer is less aware of the camera and is drawn further into the community.

Although I didn’t leave the theater with a distinct message to take away from the film, Mbakam achieved an intimate and considerate view of the village she grew up in. Her position as both filmmaker and subject, her own “two faces,” intertwine to get at the very heart of her mother’s story.

The film is not screening again at the festival, but is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Edited by Shannon Worley | sworley@themaneater.com

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