‘What will we do when she doesn’t recognise us?’

Mother (www.motherdocumentary.com) reviewed by Catherine Loveday.

This is a candid, sensitive and very powerful documentary that centres around a care facility in Thailand for Westerners with dementia. At the heart of this documentary is the vulnerability and significance of what it means to be a mother, and an unsettling insight into what it feels like to lose one. I found it utterly heart-wrenching in places, yet incredibly heart-warming in others.

Director Kristof Bilsen manages to capture an authentic and raw insight into the lives of two mothers – Pomm, a Thai mother who provides high level round-the-clock loving care for patients with advanced dementia, and Maya, a 57 year-old Swiss mother with Alzheimer’s Disease, whose family are preparing to move her into the home where Pomm works. We also meet Elizabeth, who Pomm has cared for and developed a close mother-daughter type bond with.  

Bilsen presents these stories in parallel and at first I found the shifts between them incongruous – just as I was immersing myself emotionally in one life, I was thrust into the other. But as the striking parallels and stark differences between Pomm and Maya’s lives began to emerge, this approach became compelling and effective. Pomm is a young mother of three children: Miriam and Moses who live with Pomm’s mum, and 4 year-old Nadia who has to live with her dad. Pomm goes weeks on end without seeing them so that she can hold down two jobs in Chiang Mai, four hours away from her family home. She has no choice if she is to repay her debts and support herself financially.

Throughout the film, Pomm’s love, generosity and deeply caring nature is tangible but while her client benefits enormously from this, it is heartbreaking to see her children being deprived of this part of her. Meanwhile, we see the pain experienced by Maya’s children as they are increasingly separated from her by the ravages of dementia. ‘What will we do when she doesn’t recognise us any more?’ asks her eldest daughter. Together, Maya’s family make the decision to send her to live in the care facility in Thailand where Pomm works. It is a long way away but the level of care is second to none and the cheap labour means that it is affordable for them.   

This is a story about two mothers whose relationships with their children is at the mercy of their own circumstances – for Pomm her poverty and for Maya her illness. There is plenty for psychologists to get their teeth into, from the obvious questions about how best to care for someone with dementia to the issues of attachment and ambiguous loss. But the film also draws attention to some fundamental and uncomfortable socio-political realities: Maya’s family’s financial savings are Pomm’s family’s emotional costs. This tender portrayal of motherhood is a difficult but essential watch. 

- Reviewed by Catherine Loveday, Professor of Psychology at the University of Westminster

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