Mother: Life is Messy

January 5, 2020
We speak with documentarian Kristof Bilsen about his latest film, which follows a Thai woman who looks after Westerners afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

I love documentary film festivals because I can count on visiting exotic places and meeting remarkable people with unique stories. I’ve been attending for years, and as Hank Snow used to sing, “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man.”

Or so I thought.

Belgian director Kristof Bilsen’s tender, deeply moving second feature, Mother, which played to an appreciative audience at the recent Doc NYC, is set at a curious place I never thought existed: a facility in Baan Kamlang-chay, Thailand, at which Thai caregivers look after Europeans afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

And there is one special woman working there. Surely among our truest heroes are the devoted caregivers who take care of our loved ones with dementia, and thirty-five-year-old Pomm (Chutimon Sonsirichai) is someone anyone who sees this film would trust with family members.

Cheers to Kristof Bilsen (who lost his own mother to dementia a few months ago) for spending several years making a film about a woman other filmmakers would likely pass over.

He recognised that Pomm is a star, in many ways.  Her story – she makes a small amount of money caring for the aged Elisabeth and new patient Maya (who has early-onset Alzheimer’s) at the expense of rarely seeing and caring for her own three children – resonates, because it is about so many things: culture, economics, hardship, guilt, memories lost, parting, history, generations, generosity, connection, heartbreak, sacrifice, and love. And being a mother. There were 300 films at this year’s Doc NYC, but Mother stood out.

You make observational documentaries.

Yes. I come out of a tradition taught at the National Film and Television School in the UK, where I got my Masters in documentary direction. I was in a program started by Colin Young, who was called back to his native England in the early seventies after being at UCLA. Back then, there would be public broadcasts in which a well-dressed man with a privileged background looks into the camera as he explains the suffering of the working class and in the background there is a working-class woman, for example. They had to shift the paradigm, so that the working-class woman got to speak for herself. I was trained in that kind of direct, observational filmmaking, where you have an underlying argument and a strong social awareness and do a lot of embedded research on the ground within the reality you want to film. The preference was the grey areas, not the black or white. The head of my department was Dick Fontaine, who did a lot of films for Granada Television’s World in Action, and I learned a great deal. I started there in 2009 and graduated in 2011.

Were [your previous film] Elephant’s Dream, which was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mother, which takes place in Thailand, the type of films you wanted to make back then?

Yes. Elephant’s Dream came out of my graduation film White Elephant, which is set at the Central Post Office in the DR Congo, which wasn’t working anymore. My 2014 documentary feature is set in the Central Post Office, the railway station next to it, and the fire station barracks.

To avoid the Western Gaze, do you always have rules in your head that you adhere to while making your observational docs?

There are too many films set in Congo and Thailand and other far-flung places where there is a Western Gaze and I think it’s important to shift that perspective. We need to listen to people from other continents on an equal level, not on an NGO level. I feel strongly about that and am sensitive to it. Each film is different. Elephant’s Dream is a very aesthetic film. We were eager to find a way to dignify our characters who are subject to a painful reality of stasis. The conditions for doing their job at the post office don’t exist anymore. The post office is crumbling, and they aren’t provided the materials they need. We emphasised the stillness, the moments of reflection, and showed that in the most respectful, distinguished way, without a Western Gaze. That invited thought-through camerawork which would dignify our protagonists. Whereas Mother is quite a dramatic story and there was no need for such control – we had to go along with the main character, Pomm, and follow her cues. I even asked her to film herself for parts of the film, which made her integral to the filmmaking process.

The documentarian Joshua Openheimer [The Act of Killing] said Elephant’s Dream “gently hints at the great historical tragedy.” I think that applies to Mother as well, which too is about a person who nobody knows and will never make headlines, but whose life in many ways defines our harsh world. 

I love microstories that tell you so much about the world. Little stories that become big, big stories. In regard to Elephant’s Dream, almost all the attention goes to “the heart of darkness,” east of Congo, where there are the rebels, rapes, and other crimes, but public sector work in Kinshasa in Congo tells you much more about the country and the irony of postcolonial violence of power. The little story tells a bigger story. The same with Pomm’s story in Mother.

One of the reasons I was touched watching Mother is that it was obvious that you cared about the characters and their difficult situations. 

I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I’m married to my films for three or four years. I can’t do anything else. They become a major part of my life. I cared so much about Mother because I was struggling with the decisions relating to my own mother with dementia, but even with Elephant’s Dream I had burning questions I needed to answer. A film chooses me to tackle a particular dilemma. It would be pretentious of me to say that I was interested in something, so I decided to make a movie about it. It doesn’t work for me like that. It’s a bit of a curse the way a film dawns on me. Werner Herzog said something like, “Films are uninvited guests and you have to politely sit them at the table and give them food and drink until they go.” It feels like that. I have no choice but to go off for a few years. While it might sound depressing to some, it’s actually an honour to make these films.

As happened with Elephant’s Dream, you made a short that led to Mother. How did it come about that you decided to make a short about an Alzheimer’s facility in Thailand?

I did research online when my mother was suffering with dementia, and there was a lot of reporting about this place in Baan Kamlang-Chay in Thailand. It was started by Martin Woodtli, Pomm’s Swiss employer, because he lost his own mother to Alzheimer’s. His father tried to care for her but exhausted himself, so the only option then was to take her to a nursing home. Martin was a psychotherapist for Doctors Without Borders in Thailand and decided to bring his mother there to see if that was a better option. Because the holistic approach to healthcare works in Thailand. It worked out well. And word got out among friends and friends of friends who were desperate with the same problem of not knowing what to do with their loved ones with Alzheimer’s. So, he began the center, for fourteen patients, providing them with around-the-clock care.

Has this place become so well known in Switzerland that Maya’s family would think it is the best option for care of her?

They read about it and saw newscasts about it. And they, like others, considered the economics of sending a loved one there, which I – not to ignore it – don’t find nearly as interesting as other aspects of the center. They had tried to take care of Maya themselves and her husband Walti, who couldn’t afford to retire, exhausted himself. So, they brought in a caretaker to live in their house but that gave away their privacy. So, they sent Maya to a care center, but that did havoc to their schedules as every minute of every day had to be planned. Maya is in her fifties so this would go on for years. So, this facility in Thailand was the best option.

We see in the film that Maya has three loving, grown daughters. Did any of them live at home with Maya and Walti?

They had moved out, so they weren’t there to take care of her when Walti was working. One daughter lived with a partner. Another lived on her own. And the third one lived in London.

How did you know about them?

I had already met Pomm when she was taking care of Elisabeth at the facility. I was filming them. But I thought it would be ideal for a narrative arc if I could follow a patient in Europe and then in Thailand. Martin told me that I’d never find a family who would allow it because that family would be stigmatised and lose friends who’d accuse them of having no morality for sending a loved one so far away for care. How dare you! How inhumane are you? It’s so much more complex and messy than that. But later Martin told me that there was a family, Maya’s family, that was open to meeting me. There were ethics involved and doubts, so to present my reasons for wanting to film Maya and assure the family that I wouldn’t be shooting embarrassing or problematic stuff, I went to Switzerland to meet them. So, we met, and I showed them my short, which was really a portrait of a place, and I told them the story of my own mother. They had already committed to sending Maya to the facility, and now they were convinced to let me follow that story.

Was it set up so that when Maya arrived at the facility that your protagonist, Pomm, would be one of the three caretakers who would be assigned to her, doing eight-hour shifts?

Pomm is one of about forty-five caregivers there. She was the best character for my film. Martin assigns caretakers who are the best match for the patients’ situation, to get the ideal set-up. Pomm has a certain energy and she speaks English, which is important for the patient who needs verbal cues. So, she was a good match for Maya.

When making the film, were you aware of the parallel between Maya no longer recognising her family members and Pomm’s kids not immediately connecting to her when she visits after not seeing them for a while? 

That grew on me. I wanted to find and shoot a new patient coming from Switzerland to Thailand, but I never imagined it would be another mother with three kids. Maya is older than Pomm but not by that much. The mirroring of my protagonist with her patient was unexpected. That’s what makes the film tick, right?

Essentially Mother is about two mothers leaving behind three children they can no longer take care of. In Pomm’s case it is for financial reasons and in Maya’s case it is for a health reason. Yet it’s not called Mothers. I wonder if a distributor asked you to call it something like Mothers or Caring. What is your argument for Mother as the title?

We actually had discussions with distributors about the title. I wanted to call it Mother and nothing else. The whole team was quite set on that name. In the Anglo-Saxon language, mother is one of the most beautiful words. The film is all about motherhood.

Because of your own mother’s situation, you initially were going to make a film about Alzheimer’s before deciding to make it instead about Pomm. When did you decide on your title?

We decided to make the film about Pomm quite soon, but we didn’t choose the title until the editing. I’ve learned to postpone choosing a title until I see almost the full film and it all falls into place. I don’t like to baptise it too early.

Could it be called Family?

No. Pomm calls her patient, Elisabeth, Mommy. She says that she could tell Elisabeth everything because she’d later forget it. To me, Alzheimer’s patients have kind of a monk quality. The motherhood aspect shifts, and at times the patient becomes the caregiver. It’s not so black and white.

In an interview I read online, you said, “Films must be honest about tragedy.” Is your documentary a tragedy?

I wanted my film to be about a single mother and the story to be told mainly from her perspective, and as I don’t portray Pomm as a victim, I don’t think it’s a tragedy. She shows agency and urgency to the decisions she needs to make, and she lets us participate as an audience in a messy, complex reality, but that doesn’t make it a tragedy.

If someone insisted that she is a victim because of her sorry situation, working miles from where her kids are, doesn’t seem to have a remedy, would you argue that she isn’t?

We don’t think, “Oh, poor woman!” She is charismatic and stands up for herself and questions things and negotiates with her employer Martin at the facility. She is subject to a lack of opportunities and there is a discrepancy between what the families of Elisabeth and Maya can offer them and what Pomm can offer her own mother and three children; and she considers her patients fortunate because their families can provide them with the wonderful care that she doubts she’ll be able to afford if she gets dementia at their ages. I wanted to show that Pomm was aware of a certain inequality but doesn’t let that keep her down. She’s incredibly self-aware.

Her situation seems unfixable, but I don’t see Pomm as a victim because when watching the film, I looked to her to lift my spirits. You have a scene of a Christmas party being thrown by the facility, and Maya’s family is visiting her. Pomm takes the microphone and serves as an emcee. She’s cheerful and completely comfortable with public speaking.

She’s really extraordinary. She’s a dramatic character on all levels. The amazing thing is that we didn’t have to force anything in the editing. Pomm can sit in her own reality and reflect on it. That’s a talent not many people have. Mother is Pomm telling the story. As I said, I gave her a camera and she filmed her own story as well, almost like a co-director.

Did you plan from the start to have her film herself?

No. Initially, I thought giving her the camera was a good way to keep track of her story while we were away getting financing. She happened to be so skillful in how she used the camera. It was amazing. She really mastered the shots.

What do you think she wanted to give you with her film diary?

We agreed on the story we were telling together. My perspective had to do with my struggles with my own mother and providing her with the best of care option. I wondered if I could ever offer this luxury to her when she had dementia. We wanted to represent Pomm’s point of view and the complexity of this global inequality. And there was the notion of single motherhood. What does it entail? What does it look like? We also had long conversations and from that we were able to include bits of an internal monologue in addition to her video extracts.

When Pomm was filming herself, I imagine she learned a lot about who she is. What do you think was the biggest thing that she learned?

That it’s okay to show her vulnerability and that as she juggles all the complexities in her life that it’s okay to ask for help. Maybe it will become more bearable and less burdensome.

Do you think she came to realise even more than before how complex her life is?

For sure.

At one time, Pomm says about her own mother, “I didn’t take good care of my mother.” I thought that is twisted because Pomm’s mother should take care of her, not the other way around.

That happened with my parents. The roles start shifting at some point in your life. It’s a brutal, shocking thing when you realise that the tables are turning and there is a shift in dependency.

Pomm feels guilty and doesn’t want to be a burden on her mother, but does her mother think of Pomm as a burden?

What do you think?

I don’t think Pomm’s mother thinks about that topic, regarding either her relationship with Pomm or her taking care of Pomm’s two older children, Miriam and Moses. She just does what the situation requires her to do.

I agree. There is a generational thing as well. Pomm says that when she sees her mother after being away for a while, she can’t hug her because of the culture. I find that slightly off. I compare it to this area in Belgium where there are mainly farmers and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that there are a lot of suicides. They work the land but being social and intimacy within families isn’t something they are familiar with.

Pomm does hug her kids, particularly the youngest Nadia.

She hugs her children. But with the older ones, Moses and Miriam, there is an awkwardness and a distance between them.

Because she sees them infrequently as they grow up. Miriam and Moses live with Pomm’s mother and Nadia lives with Pomm’s ex-partner. One of the most memorable moments in your movie is when we see Pomm and her kids when they were younger at the beach, and there is a closeness and comfort level we don’t see in the present. Perhaps they lived together then. What I’m thinking when I see Pomm now interact with her kids is that at she needs to re-connect to them before it’s too late.

It’s quite tragic that she must raise her kids as she does, talking to them on FaceTime but seeing them only once a month. It’s insane. Going back to your tragedy question, what we’re seeing is that Pomm really doesn’t want poverty or the lack of opportunity to happen again to the next generation in her family, her children. I think one of the reasons she agreed to make the film with us is that she wants it to be a tribute to her children. The film will survive time and trauma and so many things that she can bring back to her children. This is where I work. This is my life.

Early in the movie, Pomm says, “My marriage has failed.” Later on, she laments that she hasn’t be able to improve the lives of her kids and mother. Does she consider herself a failure?

No, I don’t think so. She definitely considers the exhaustion of her life, but one day she might feel differently. Is it draining?  Of course, it is. Even at sad moments, she has such strength and can reflect on her life.

She is amazing in her job taking care of Elisabeth and then Maya and she is able to send money home. Is she proud of herself?

I think it shows. Otherwise she could not have carried on making this movie with three guys for three years and be that consistent. There’s a self-respect and a healthy pride.

You keep your camera close to both Elisabeth and Maya when they seem, to me anyway, to want to say something but have lost their vocabulary.  

It’s a mystery to me still. It might be their experiencing stress, but it might really be us projecting a lot of emotions on them. It’s not clear to me and I dare to leave that open to be honest.

I got teary when you juxtapose scenes of the unresponsive Maya being kissed by her grown daughters with old footage of the happy Maya kissing her young daughters. Did you have an emotional response when editing that part?

There were collaborative forces at work. Walti told me that the family had some old VHS tapes of the family but “there is nothing interesting on there.” He asked if I wanted to look at them. I said that I’d digitise the tapes for him and see if there was anything useful. So, we found that as we fell into the material. Praise to everyone on my team for feeling and caring, including the brilliant, sensitive editor Maarten Janssens.

I really like the early scenes with Pomm and Elisabeth because there is an intimacy between them, and caretaker and patient are benefiting from each other. Pomm feels so close to her that she even climbs into bed with her.

That was filmed by Pomm.

She knew exactly where to put the camera without going to film school! A question asked to every good documentarian: For what you shot, how were you able to get such intimacy?

Time, time, time, time. That’s basically what I need to be able to make this type of film. I really embed myself in the realities of the characters. Surely you know that the “fly-on-the-wall” concept is such nonsense. You are interacting with your characters and injecting yourself into the story. Physically, you don’t see us inside the frame but we are part of what you see. You can’t be just a silent observer. You are participants. Shooting intimate scenes is a bit like dancing with the characters. You get so close to them because you’re dancing with them. You’re part of their aura in a way. It’s almost like intuition – the sound guy, the cameraman and I, will look at each other and know what to do. I shot part of the film and other parts were shot by a talented young DOP named Marco Milovanović; my sound recorder, Xan Márquez Caneda, was my cowriter; and there was Noi, our lovely Thai translator/“fixer”. That was our small team.

Would you have to go to Martin in the morning and tell him what your team planned for that day?

In the beginning, yes. But once he knew how we worked, he gave us more freedom. Considering the sensitive subject matter, it was important that we were trusted.

I read where you said, “During the first interview that I did with Pomm, she talked about Elisabeth as if she was her mother or her grandmother. Suddenly, it showed dependency. Pomm was depending on her patient, Elisabeth, because it compensated for the care she couldn’t give her own children.” Would Pomm agree with you?

Yes. These types of films can be like therapy. There is a transition going on. She came to realise this through the process of making the film. You kind of feel it in the scene at the school bus stop when Pomm tells Miriam to unblock her on the phone. Her daughter smiles and says Pomm is just wanting to complain about her more. But Pomm is saying: It’s called parenting. We see they are finding each other a bit more.

That’s your point: the more time they spend together, the more they will connect. The shame is that Pomm has to travel back to her facility the next day.

True, but Pomm is expressing herself more to her daughter each time. She is willing to show her vulnerability and when they both do that they will feel closer.

Did you like when Pomm, who is in her mid-thirties, visits her mother and lies down next to her on the stoop like she’s a kid again?

Yes! Because she can’t hug her. The way she is lying in the fetal position, we see an embryo and a fetus. The mother doesn’t go, Come here, sweetie, and comfort her; she just sits there not able to cope with a fragile dependent Pomm next to her.

When Maya becomes the new patient she cares for, Pomm says they were destined to be together. Does she see her whole life as preordained?

Not really. She’s a Christian. I think what she’s talking about has do with Maya being given such a kind patient. With Elisabeth and then Maya, Pomm thinks that at least on the work part of her life, she has a safe haven that makes the rest of her life more bearable.

I think an important line in your movie is: “Parting is very painful.” 

Yeah, letting go. It’s not only parting physically from children, but also the parting of certain ideas and concepts. If you are mindful and are able to accept complexity and messiness and sadness, then you deal with it in a healthier way and can ask, “What is a family exactly?” and “What is motherhood exactly?” You are allowed the flexibility of thought with advanced humanity. I got a lot of strength from that.

Parting also is about loss. In the press notes, you talk about how your mother had your family’s “collective memories” of your childhood in her head. So, parting includes forgetfulness, the loss of memory. In your film, I think it also applies to Pomm’s kids. They certainly don’t have Alzheimer’s or any cognitive issues, yet simply by not seeing their mother very much as they grow up, they naturally forget about the good times they had with her.

We assume that people will be remembered for what they did, what we read in their obituaries. It’s a personality description. You look at Elisabeth and Maya as they are now, without language. We miss who they were but it’s important to accept and cherish who they are here and now –maybe that is a key to acceptance.

You establish what a difficult life Pomm has in the present. And later in the film you reveal another hardship she deals with. You have Pomm talk about her father. She claims he’s her role model and she got all her kindness and generosity from him, and, by the way, he had deep depression and shot himself in the head so the family could collect his insurance. Whoa. She recalls she cried when it happened and how Elisabeth helped her through it, but now she talks about it matter-of-factly. And the other thing we should now think about is that Pomm’s mother was surely shaken by her husband’s death, though that’s not part of her conversation with her daughter. Are they just shrugging off what happened?

It’s fascinating how they deal with it. They have coping strategies. And they have to focus on the new generation. I learned from the respected child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens in Belgium that we have to realise that there’s only a certain amount you can do in one generation as an individual. He talks about the links to the previous generation and the next generation. Instead of us doing all the work – although we think we have to – we have to leave some parts of it to the next generation. Pomm, her children, and her mother are all part of a continuum that’s getting through a generational trauma. Is it stoicism? No. Pomm is actually showing that there’s so much she can do, and she’ll try to connect the dots. She is very aware that the film is a testament to her children, who will have to do their homework to continue what their mother started.

Are you still in touch with Pomm?

Yes, we talk. She’s still struggling but doing okay. After having made the film, she is better able to negotiate with her boss, her colleagues, and her children, for that matter. She is more adept at communication.

Your executive producer is Kirsten Johnson, who is a big name in the documentary world as the director of Cameraperson and the cinematographer on Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Fahrenheit 9/11, Citizenfour, The Invisible War, and about thirty-five other features. When did she come onto the project?

After we’d done about 60% to 70% of the edit. I felt I needed someone to support and mentor me. I always like when I have someone with a second pair of eyes looking at my film. I am a huge fan of Cameraperson. It’s very humbling to see someone who has such a successful career showing bits and bobs of her uncertainty about life. And she intertwined those snippets with her story of her mother with Alzheimer’s. So, I wanted to talk to her.

How can people see your film until you get a distributor?

I am taking it to festivals, and we are also working on impact screenings, collaborating with caregiving organisations here and internationally. We are already doing that in Belgium. Distributing independent films is not easy.

The plight of the documentarian is to spend several years on a film that will be difficult to exhibit.

Yes, in addition to time, you need stamina. Because it’s very difficult to finance these types of films and find places to screen them. It’s becoming tougher and tougher to get these films out there. I hear the same from colleagues. It’s a harder world out there.

Could you have made Mother before Elephant’s Dream?

No. It’s a progression. Now my second feature is finished and out in the world. And I’ll be a father in February, with a daughter, my first child. I live in Belgium and now think of family and fatherhood. I am in the right place.

What do you want people to take away from your film?

Kindness and generosity and allowing that life is messy – that’s a huge one – and for vulnerability to flourish.

Which is what Pomm represents.


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