Maternal Memory Narratives and the Moving Documentary Image

by: , May 24, 2019

© Sophia Turkiewicz

‘There is hidden and always ready in woman the source; the locus for the other. The mother, too, is a metaphor’ (Cixous 1976: 881).



Through auto/biographical and social acts of memorialisation on film, the female documentary filmmaker who seeks to re-tell her mother’s story creates opportunities to re-negotiate and re-invest in the lost, interrupted or ‘slipping away’ maternal relation. In these maternal narratives, the imperative is always to retrieve what is experienced as lost or threatening to disappear and the act of filmmaking itself provides the participating subjects with agency to undertake a rescue and recovery mission.

The selected case study films analysed here reconstruct and refigure the auto/biographical maternal gaze through documentary filmmaking as a collaboration between the participating mother and her child-now-adult daughter. Common to these works is that the process is as significant as the outcome (the produced film) for both the maternal subject and the filmmaker/daughter subject. Critical to their success is eliciting the co-operation and participation of the maternal figure to engage in the narrative process aligned with the respective filmmakers’ capacity for self-sacrifice to act as surrogates and advocates for their lost, ‘slipping away’ mothers. Here, I wish to address two questions: ‘how is the maternal relation enacted through the process of filmmaking between a mother and her daughter?’and ‘how can filmmaking be a mechanism for re-representing the maternal gaze?’.

An exploration of the re-representation of the maternal relationship on documentary film invariably leads to and necessitates a definition of the maternal gaze. Drawing on the work of Donald Winnicott, the maternal gaze is understood here to refer to the mutually shared gaze between a mother and her child. Lacan’s model of ‘the self as other’ and Winnicott’s studies of maternal and infantile relations combined inform this discussion of maternal intersubjectivity in documentary film.

Taking up Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage Winnicott proposed the mother performs a ‘mirror-role’ in early child development (Lacan 2001 [1966]; Winnicott 2005 [1967] & 2008 [1971]). When a baby looks at its mother and the mother returns the look, both mother and infant actively engage in mirroring each other’s looking. The child sees herself in the mother’s reciprocal gaze. Alternatively, when the mother’s gaze is absent (when the mother’s face does not function as a mirror), and the child cannot ‘not see themselves’ they experience ‘a threat of chaos’ (Winnicott 2008 [1971]: 151-152). This disconnection between the mother and child leads to ‘consequences’: ‘Firstly, their own creative capacity begins to atrophy, and in some way or other they look around for other ways of getting something of themselves back from the environment’ (Winnicott 2008 [1971]: 151). When the child perceives the mother to be absent, the child seeks alternate mirrors, other forms of imitation and identification.

The desiring maternal gaze facilitates the child’s sense of an autonomous self. The mirror concept is a metaphor for understanding the ‘child’s need to be seen (by the mother) (Wade 2013: 29). The maternal gaze transmitted to the receiving child offers ‘the fantasy of unity’ of the self-image as a whole and ‘intact’ (Bronfen 1996: 74). [1] The key to Winnicott’s concept of ‘good-enough mothering’ is continuity of presence that enables a child to internalise the image of her, whilst recognising she is separate (Winnicott 2008 [1971]: 18). Sarah Arnold’s reading of Lacan’s Imaginary mirror phase in her study of maternal horror films describes the inherent paradox in the child’s desire for the mother: ‘The maternal body comes to represent both the sense of fulfilment (the memory of it) and unfulfilled desire (the impossibility of a return to that time)’ (Arnold 2013: 9).

Within Lacan and Winnicott’s schemata, the maternal relationship is fraught with attachment struggles marked by the ‘strain of relating inner and outer reality’ from which none of us can escape (Winnicott 2008 [1971]: 18). The woman filmmaker who is motivated to narrativise her maternal relationship on film can similarly be seen to engage in a process of negotiating between her desire to fulfil her familial obligation to care for and/or advocate on behalf of the maternal figure as well as engaging in her own journey toward selfhood and separation. Wanting to know her mother, she aims to know herself, and in this process of knowledge attainment, the daughter necessarily steps into the role of maternal care-giver. By adopting the maternal gaze, the daughter (if only temporarily) closes any perceived gap between being seen and not. When the mother is unable to fulfil the child-now-adult’s ‘need to be seen’, a struggle ensues for the adult/filmmaker between a desire to return to the memory of ‘fulfilment’ through the act of filmmaking whilst acknowledging at the same time the impossibility of being able to retrieve and restore what is lost or under threat, particularly in the case of aging and vulnerable mothers.

In Cathy Henkel’s The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face (2003) and Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once My Mother (2013) the daughter/filmmaker re-constructs herself as a surrogate mother in an attempt to re-connect with her absent or failing mother. I am interested in how these filmmakers explore and straddle both ‘the inner and outer’ psychic terrains of the central maternal characters’ responses to trauma (specifically sexual assault, war and family separation) at the same time as navigating their inter-personal relationships through the process of film production. Both Henkel and Turkiewicz are driven by the belief and hope that their films will offer some kind of redress for their mother’s experience of injustice and loss and provide comfort and healing. Through these acts of re-representation on film, a maternal intersubjectivity emerges.

Maternal drama film narratives have historically been marginalised to the horror and melodrama genres (Arnold 2013). Documentary films that explore and articulate traditionally denied female subjectivities such as maternity and maternal relations are most evident in first person films. Recently we have seen women filmmakers producing not one but successive films about their maternal relationships. For example, the pivotal works of Rea Tajiri, such as History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991) and Wisdom Gone Wild (2015-), as well as Su Friedrich’s The Ties That Bind (1984) and I Cannot Tell You How I Feel (2016). These works are a testimony to the capacity of these daughter/filmmakers to engage and negotiate with their primary maternal relationship through a process of filmmaking that enables the maternal subject to be heard and acknowledged. The film text becomes a mechanism to work through, care for, advocate and re-represent the maternal gaze. The camera facilitates the transmission of the personal maternal for the public gaze. The construction and articulation of the maternal gaze on film is an act of writing the mother, with the intention of reclaiming and re-working maternal subjectivity.


Writing the Mother

Helene Cixous describes writing as a form of otherness, intrinsic to our intersubjectivity: ‘It all happens between us … it’s between us … Writing is otherness, writing others, I other myself, otherwise nothing happens’ (Cixous 2010). Writing is, therefore, a collaborative act, a conversation between the self and the ‘messages’ that one receives and inherits ‘belonging to this so-called past that is present …or those messages that come from somewhere in the future’ (Cixous 2010). Cixous cites a paradox between linear time and place and the act of writing which she considers to be more akin to a psychic improvisation – spontaneous, without preparation, drawing on a range of sources in constant flux. Her understanding of the act of writing as intersubjective is similar to the screenwriting process in auto/biographical works where the primary focus is on performing subjectivity, ‘the goals of self’–‘me’ (Conway 2001: 1376). [2]

First person documentaries are acts of self-inscription and performance, what Cecilia Sayad describes as ‘self-fashioned’ constructions articulating ‘the author’s desire to be physically present’ (Sayad 2013: xxv, xx). The on-screen presence of the author/filmmakers in the documentary films examined here are attempts to make present the mother who is perceived to be absent or under threat, putting the mother-daughter relationship in jeopardy. There is an active shift from the subjective maternal gaze to an intersubjective mother-daughter narrative as the author/daughter enacts her desire to re-connect with the disengaged/disengaging maternal figure. Both Turkiewicz and Henkel attempt to reconstruct the maternal image to return and restore the mother to her daughter, and to herself. They create new spaces for their relationship and invite us/the viewer ‘in.’ We are positioned as witnesses, and through a process of identification and mirroring of the mother-daughter tug-of-war, between feelings of attachment and loss, our capacity for identification and empathy is activated.

In her analysis of the family photograph as a signifier of familial relationships, Marianne Hirsch argues it is the ‘familial gaze’ that evokes this ‘small emotional narrative’ between the viewer and the family subject in the photo (Stern 2004: 69). [3] Hirsch’s ‘familial gaze’ activates ‘the conventions and ideologies of family through which they see themselves'(Hirsch 1999: x). The familial gaze is not looking for a likeness of yourself; rather it is a look that activates and draws the viewer to see herself as part of (or not part of) a specific family group. The viewer does not need to be a member of the family pictured to engage with and experience the familial gaze (Alphen 1999: 46). [4] Similarly, the maternal gaze re-constructed on film evokes an affective experience of the mother’s desire for the child, reciprocated by the child for the mother. The maternal gaze is not looking for a likeness of one’s own mother; rather it is a look that activates and draws you/the viewer to re-imagine ‘the child’s need to be seen’ by the mother.

The failure of the mother to ‘see’ and acknowledge her, or return the gaze, creates a desire for the daughter. Common to Once My Mother and The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face is that something is perceived to be missing. The mother’s identity has been subverted and has become unrecognisable. Through filmmaking, a search for the lost mother is undertaken. Male figures are minor or mostly off-screen characters, which heightens the intensity and exclusivity of the mother-daughter relationship. These films are concerned only with the primary maternal relation.

A process of self-inscription is necessitated by the desire to achieve the ‘goals of self’, to be ‘me’, to attain knowledge and be able to comprehend what is often impossible to know–our lost imaginary mother as ourselves. Cixous’ concept of the mother as a metaphor for the push-pull ‘intense pleasure and violence’ dichotomy of intersubjectivity in Laugh of the Medusa is useful when discussing documentary maternal narratives (Cixous 1976: 882). Cixous reminds us that when we write about others, we are invariably writing ourselves and her warning is that if we do not engage with the intersubjective ‘nothing happens’ (Cixous 2010). The cited film texts not only pay homage to her call to ‘write your self. Your body must be heard’ in their attempts to narrativise their maternal relations they are testimonies to how film can be/is an act of writing the self as (m)other in motion (Cixous 1976: 880). They are motivated by the desire to have their mothers heard, acknowledged and made visible. By adopting the gaze and voice of the silenced mother as ‘I’ these daughter filmmakers engage their mothers in the process of narrative creation as an intersubjective act.


Once My Mother 

Once My Mother is an auto/biographical work by Australian Polish filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz. The film is both a memoir and a working through of a childhood trauma experienced by the filmmaker/daughter having been put in an orphanage at the age of seven for two years by her then single mother, Helen. The narrative begins with a scene of misrecognition between mother and daughter:

SOPHIA: I’m Sophia.

HELEN: You’re not Sophia darling.

SOPHIA: Yeah, I’m your daughter.

HELEN: My daughter is different.

SOPHIA: What’s different about your daughter?

HELEN: She’s different, she’s more smaller than you, shorter.

SOPHIA: I’m Sophia.

HELEN: I can’t believe it.

Through voice-over narration, Turkiewicz addresses her mother as ‘you’, the mother she is ‘losing the woman who was once [her] mother’ due to her mother’s dementia and increasing frailty (Turkiewicz 2013). Like the narrator of her mother’s story, Sophia must give up her role as a daughter: ‘I’ve become the mother now. It’s my job to care for you – that’s what mothers do’ (Turkiewicz 2013). Swapping roles is a strategy to engage and ‘reactivate’ the absent maternal gaze. The daughter can see her mother, but her mother cannot see her as she is now in the present moment. Sophia looks to reconnect with her mother through the shared mutual gaze. The failure of the mother to reciprocate is acknowledged by the daughter. We, the audience, are positioned as witnesses to their failed recognition. In her mother’s absence, our witnessing offers validation of the daughter’s desire to know and care for her mother. You/the viewer are invited to identify and engage with the filmmaker/daughter’s ‘need to be seen’. Helen is not our mother, but in our shared witnessing (we know what Sophia knows) we are drawn to re-imagine her ‘as if’ she were.

In our interview Turkiewicz tells of her ongoing need to attend to her mother’s story through filmmaking: ‘it was unfinished business and I kept getting drawn to needing to just keep pestering my mother and to turn up with a camera at every opportunity’ (Turkiewicz 2018). After many attempts of ‘exploring, not knowing where I was going’ realising her mother’s health was deteriorating a sense of urgency took hold: ‘seeing her kind of vanishing mentally before my very eyes … it was clear that physically she wasn’t going to be around … that’s when I really got the wind up me.’ (Turkiewicz 2018)

Once My Mother is not one film but a culmination of films: ‘I’ve been making the same story my whole life’ says Turkiewicz (2018). Having tried to tell her mother’s story a number of times working predominantly in fiction, she made the final shift to documentary:

In order to be truthful, it had to be this real documentary, the authenticity of her story came from the fact there was this real person up there on the screen telling her story as she had lived it rather than …through the prism of drama and actors (Turkiewicz 2018). 

Turkiewicz’s background in narrative drama is evident in the storytelling devices employed. She combines archival material with observational footage, staged re-enactments and voice-over narration. Having shot extensive amounts of footage over many years, it was her editor Denise Haslem’s demand for a script that enabled her to find the narrative form and her own voice:

‘go and write a bloody script … I just need some shape to this thing’, and she sent me up to the attic … I went up into the attic, and that’s [when] those words ‘I’m losing you. I’m losing the woman who was once my mother’ just came into my head. … that’s when I knew I had the tone of it – that it wasn’t this conventional documentary with historical experts talking and what I realised was that this was my letter to my mother … it was directly to you that I was talking and as soon as I got that I heard that voice in my head I was away. (Turkiewicz 2018)

In Ann Kaplan’s analysis of feminist autobiographical film texts, she notes the use of voice-over to provide a ‘reassuring’ comforting presence for the viewer, giving coherence to what ‘would otherwise be a disorientated world’ (Kaplan 1988:128). Turkiewicz uses first-person voice-over narration as a filmic strategy to provide structure and coherence as a counterpoint to her mother’s increasing incoherence. Sophia becomes the storyteller directly addressing her mother as if she were speaking a letter. The voice-over narration is delivered by an actor cast to sound like her ‘because it had to match up [with] when you hear me speaking’ (Turkiewicz 2018). Sophia is a character in her own story and finds a place in her mother’s story. She has agency and a level of control that she did not experience as a child. Having an actor narrate her words functions as an alienation device that enables a degree of separation and autonomy to work through her childhood trauma:

I hadn’t really … dealt with, all sorts of complicated feelings that I’d had with her over the years, and you know the whole theme of forgiveness really is at the centre of the story (Turkiewicz 2018). 

The film is structured as a parallel narrative. Narrating her life story, marking key milestones (leaving home, going to film school, finding her birth father, marriage and motherhood) Turkiewicz gives her mother’s stories coherence and new meaning. Sophia is able to write her own story through reconstructing Helens on film. The filmmaking process facilitates growing selfhood and independence for the protagonist daughter, enabling a process of separation to occur:

I was making the film as way of understanding what it was… what it was about our relationship and coming to terms with her as a human being, as a person rather than as a mother and you know having an understanding of her as a woman rather than her as my mother who did all these terrible things (Turkiewicz 2018). 

The editing process allows her to shape the mother-daughter relation, select and reject material that threatens the desire for narrative comprehension:

I really had to pick and choose … there were some times where she just went round and round in circles … what I’ve constructed is from mountains of material, where I just had to pick stuff, when there was lucidity … I could build into the narrative (Turkiewicz 2018).

Reframing her mother’s story within the ‘big’ history narrative, she is elevated to ‘heroine’ status:

I discovered that this story that I had grown up with … from my mother was epic. I had no idea that she was one of two million Poles who had been sent to Siberia in the space of two years for instance and that information just blew my mind and at that point I thought this is big, this is much more than just my personal story about my mother this is important in the big definition of important and once I got that big idea I had to make it (Turkiewicz 2018). 

The film offers visibility and tangible evidence of her mother’s life as co-existing in the social- historical world: ‘I just wanted her life recorded and her life to matter … I needed to tell her story so that she was part of the historical record’ (Turkiewicz 2018). 

Turkiewicz describes the collaboration between them as passing onto her ‘the keys to her life’ (Turkiewicz 2018). And in this process of exchange, sharing and passing on of knowledge, Sophia meets her obligations to both her familial and societal ancestry:

I’ve got that record for my family and for my son and his family – how privileged am I to have that to pass on but also have this history, this chapter of history that hasn’t really [been told] (Turkiewicz 2018). 

The film is complete, but the process of identity formation continues as can be seen in one of the ‘behind the scenes’ extras, which shows Turkiewicz returning to her mother’s birthplace after her death. I ask her why this scene did not make the final cut:

I did consider that, but it was there in various [ways], but in the end, I don’t know quite why I couldn’t find a place for it… I actually went there with a camera [for] the first time and walked that earth and kind of knew I was walking the footsteps of [my] mother … all my family – I felt as if I was just poured into the ground for the first I felt this sense of actually being rooted in the ground rather than floating around on top …I can’t even articulate it properly it was just this overwhelming feeling of finding home in some way where intellectually I knew this was not home, but somehow at some level, I was there walking around this world of my ancestors I’d never had a concept of continuity or ancestors. I felt I’d done my job with this story, and I do feel a sense of completion about it in a way that I’ve never about anything else …any of my other creative work. I’ve never felt as if I’ve finally done what I needed to do with this story and I could just put it away … not put it away as in discard it, but I could put it some place inside me, and it’s part of me, but I’m now kind of ready to move on (Turkiewicz 2018).

I understand her return to be the child-now-adult’s return to the primal scene–in the metaphysical sense, the place where birth and death meet, where we recognise our origins for the first time. In this place, the daughter enacts her final separation by recognising hers is a continuous history. Turkiewicz has stepped out of Once My Mother, out of her role as a surrogate mother and now narrates in her own voice, in her own words. Still on camera we see ‘the child’s need to be seen by the mother’ re-framed as now having come to rest, no longer as other, but integrated and in coexistence: ‘your story is my story, our story’, ‘inside me’ and ‘part of me’ (Turkiewicz 2018). 


The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face

Filmmaker Cathy Henkel’s mother Laura was raped and suffered horrific facial injuries as a result. She developed post-traumatic stress and at her daughter’s behest left her home in South Africa to join her in Sydney, Australia. Whilst there was an initial investigation and identification of a suspect, the case did not lead to a conviction.

The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face begins with Laura playing the piano, looking into a mirror:

LAURA VO: For a long, long time, I have simply avoided looking at myself in the mirror. I look at the particular part that I’m dealing with. I never look at the big picture. I avoid it to such an extent I’m not even sure now what I look like anymore.

Laura’s voice-over narration sets up the agenda of the film: to find and confront her attacker and have ‘justice’ for the ‘deep and lasting damage that he did to me’ (Henkel 2003). She is accompanied by a chorus of voices, made up of key characters we meet later in the film.

Structured as an investigation narrative, the filmmaker/daughter/detective undertakes her own search to redress the injustice suffered by her mother. In this process. Henkel must also confront not only the suspect but also friends of her mother and family members. For Laura, the greatest suffering was not being ‘believed’ by those close to her. A neighbour friend dismissing her accusation because the named attacker was known to her as ‘such a nice boy. Laura’s son, Michael, blames her for having let it happen: ‘she shouldn’t have invited him in the first place’ (Henkel 2003).

As the narrative moves progressively back to reveal the circumstances and aftermath of the rape Cathy takes over as narrator. Due to her mother’s deteriorating mental health and inability to advocate for herself, the filmmaker/daughter becomes the film’s protagonist. I ask her the reasoning that led to this decision:

I tried all kinds of techniques and therapy and offering her this and that, nothing had worked she just wasn’t responding to anything until the day I said well what about if I go back and find the guy and confront him, see if we can get some justice for you. And that was when she first sort of perked up and said, ‘oh yes, would you do that?.’ (Henkel 2018)

The daughter/filmmaker facilitates the communication between herself and family members, neighbours, community and legal representatives, law enforcement and finally the perpetrator. Her camera her primary tool: ‘I had a small camera, and so I took it with me, and I was just filming really as a way of coping… the film began in 1989 with my visit to South Africa to help my mother heal’ (Henkel 2018).

Henkel needed to hire a private bodyguard to ensure her safety. With a hidden camera, she tracks down and confronts the perpetrator. Despite not getting an admission of guilt, this was a turning point in gaining her mother’s confidence in continuing to film her story:

She warmed up to the film … when I showed her the footage of me confronting the perpetrator and also my brother. She realised this is actually very powerful and somehow she trusted me and from there on she became quite engaged with the fact that maybe the film could tell a bigger story [about] everything that had happened to her could have a larger meaning because it might resonate to other people (Henkel 2018).

By getting the apologies of her mother’s non-believers on film, Henkel gives Laura the validation she is seeking:

When my brother apologised and acknowledged that and the neighbours as well, that really released her. That’s what really brought her back to life, was that everyone acknowledged that it was not her fault (Henkel 2018).

Mother and daughter became collaborators and co-creators in rebuilding Laura’s lost identity through the screenwriting process:

She wrote her story out for me. I also interviewed her and took bits of what she said – we ended up working on it together because it had to fit the film and it had to fit the opening sequence, so it became a collaboration – but they were very much her words (Henkel 2018).

One of the key motifs in the film is the mirror. Laura is unable to recognise herself after the assault:

LAURA VO: I saw myself in the mirror, and I turned around to see who was standing behind me because that reflection that I saw couldn’t possibly be me (Henkel 2004).

The title of the film speaks the daughter’s experience of her mother’s violation and annihilation of self:

I couldn’t see it by looking at her from the outside she still looks like my mum just with a broken jaw and some smashed teeth and her nose squished, but she saw herself differently so that title was something she felt very much spoke to her (Henkel 2018).

By reconstructing and re-representing her mother’s image on film, the filmmaker/daughter aims to restore her mother to herself:

When we were shooting the film there was one day where she was going to go out, and I said ‘do you want to put on some lippy or something’, and she said ‘well I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror for like ten years, but I’ll do it’ and so I filmed that and realised that that could be a very good opening for the film and she agreed to that (Henkel 2018).

The mirror, like the camera for which she is performing, frames her mother’s desire to achieve visibility and validation. The maternal gaze is re-framed to enable the mother to recognise her mirror reflection as ‘me’. The ‘child’s need to be seen’ is subjugated to enable a reversal of the gaze to become the mother’s ‘need to be seen’.

The action of looking, being seen and re-imagining a subjective ‘me’ self that can be re-played and re-enacted with repeated viewings through the moving image is both restorative and empowering for Laura: ‘The mirror metaphor became a way that my mother could look these people in the eye, and they could look her in the eye and say I’m sorry’ (Henkel 2018).

The film enacts a daughter’s desire to give back her mother’s identity and selfhood not only in the private but public social sphere:

My mum came to see it for the first time with an audience, and there was five hundred people in the room … the film finished, the lights came up, and my mum stood up, and the audience stood up and gave her a standing ovation. It went for five minutes, and I still cry even to this minute when I think about that moment seeing my mum get up there in front of that audience and people standing to applaud her. It wasn’t me, I was at the back, I was not it, it was about my mum that was one of the best moments of my life, and she was just so, so thrilled. She loved the standing ovation and attention. That moment was a big healing moment for her (Henkel 2018).

But it does not end here. Laura continues to want her story to be told.


Henkel’s daughter, Laura’s granddaughter, Sam Lara is currently making a film about her grandmother, entitled Grantiki. Referencing the 1947 Kon-Tiki oceanic expedition the title signals this will be an ‘epic’ journey narrative.

Accompanying her grandmother on a childhood dream trip to Vienna, Lara initially brought her camera to document their travels as a memento ‘home video’. Lara explains how Laura became an active participant in the filming process:

I was pushing her (in her wheelchair). I gave her my camera and said ‘you film’. And she started filming … she was laughing and she’s saying ‘go faster’, and I started to run and then a cyclist went past and rung his bell, and I went to slow down, and Grandma didn’t slow down and went flying off the front and landed head first into the cement and still filming herself, and that changed everything (Lara 2018).

In the ambulance on their way to the hospital, Lara recounts how the act of filming became a ‘coping mechanism’ for them both:

Grandma grabbed me by the hands and said ‘film everything make it worthwhile’ and so I then picked up the camera again which had miraculously survived the fall and for the next eight hours while we were stuck in this hospital I was partly filming because she’d asked me too, but it became a complete coping mechanism … Instead of thinking about what was happening, I was going okay what cutaways do I need, what angles should I film this from, should I get a cutaway of the clock? … it was no longer a home video it was just totally a coping mechanism for me, and I think for Laura as well. She’s a theatre actress so she knows how to play a part and she said to me ‘I thought the part that I was playing was of this glamorous grandmother, but now I’m playing the hero’ so she kind of took on a new character (Lara 2018).

Lara also realised ‘I had to be a character’ in the film that had ‘evolved from real life actions that were out of our control’ (Lara 2018). She is also taking control in order to continue her mother’s work as a carer and co-creator in attending to her grandmother’s story: ‘maybe this documentary could be more than a home video … it could be something that other people would be interested in seeing it was incredible resilience that I was seeing from my Grandma’ (Lara 2018).

Lara describes the experience as a ‘shared trauma’ between her grandmother and herself:

I feel closer to her always, forever because of this footage and this film I will always feel like this was something we shared you know it’s like a baby we’re both raising together, that we’ll always have, that will always be out there in the world that no one can take away (Lara 2018).

Lara says the film is a ‘gift’, a way of ‘giving back’ to her grandmother who is also advocating for herself to be seen: ‘she kept saying ‘film everything, film everything’ and she’d often say ‘are you filming’ ‘are you rolling on this?’ (Lara 2018). Describing herself as a third-generation filmmaker, filmmaking ‘a family legacy’ (‘I’ve been filmed literally from birth’), and child witness to her mother’s efforts in telling her grandmother’s story she draws a connection between her mother’s film and her own:

What I hope it does is show her how I see and how everyone who watches this film will see her, and it will make her feel like that trip, and perhaps her life which has been very tough has been worthwhile because this is the legacy that she is leaving behind (Lara 2018).

The filmmaker aims to validate, gain understanding and empathy for her grandmother by narrativising their relationship on film for the public gaze. It is her ‘way of telling her that I love her.’ The granddaughter refigures the maternal gaze through making visible ‘her how I see her’. Although still in development, Grantiki is testimony to her ongoing commitment to her maternal ancestry like her mother’s before her.



Each generation must decide what it will remember and how it will remember. Film is a form of memory transmission. The film works examined demonstrate that maternal and familial narratives are a continuing practice of self-inscription within existing generations and across generations. For these daughters/filmmakers, filmmaking is a way to investigate, refigure and reconstruct the maternal relationship that has been disrupted. They articulate a historically and socially denied maternal subjectivity at the same time as articulating their personal subjective need to care for and attend to their mothers. The film as a mediated text serves two functions, to be self-expressive and to provide a therapeutic and healing setting for the maternal relationship. They are acts of caregiving and taking responsibility for transmitting their maternal inheritance to the next generation within their own families and communities. They are also works intended and motivated by a perceived audience for the public gaze.

The recognition and on-going care of people who have experienced trauma is increasingly understood to be a shared communal responsibility. Minimising the effects of the trauma can sometimes be achieved through therapeutic processes and medical interventions. It is important to acknowledge the work these films do in reducing the ongoing effects of trauma experienced within their respective familial and maternal networks. By re-representing the personal and intimate relationships with their mothers, the filmmakers engage in the public discourse and meet their obligations drawing attention to how film can be a mechanism for remembering and caregiving.

Embedded within these maternal narratives is Cixous’s notion of ‘writing others, I other myself, otherwise, nothing happens’. By knowing you I hope to know myself, by making you matter, I also matter. By making you visible, I also gain presence and visibility. Film provides visible evidence of the self as other, offering authors the opportunity to ‘give me my self as myself’ through enacting re-representation and identity formation on camera (Cixous 1976: 882).



[1] See Elizabeth Bronfen’s reading of the maternal gaze within Lacanian analysis: ‘Of course this ‘intact’ image of the self, transmitted through the maternal gaze, already contains an alienating difference, on the one hand, because the reflected image of the self can never be entirely identical with the represented body (Lacan 2001 [1966]), and on the other hand, because the image implies the absence of the body (Bronfen 1992). For the ‘healthy’ psychic development of the subject to take place, this fantasy of integrity and unity, along with the difference inherent to it, must be given up’ (Bronfen 1996: 74).

[2] Human memory researcher, Martin Conway proposes that autobiographical memory refers in essence to ‘goals of the self’–‘me’. The working memory makes available to the self ‘memories and knowledge that are congruent with the goals of the self’. The concept of self is grounded in autobiographical memory ‘that persists over weeks, months, years, decades and lifetimes, and it retains knowledge (of the self) at different levels of abstraction’ (Conway 2001: 1375-1376).

[3] The dominant form of family biography from the 1960s in middle-class societies has been and continues to be the family photograph. Quoting Cartier-Bresson’s description of the photograph as capturing the ‘decisive moment’ that appears to freeze time, psychoanalyst Daniel N. Stern considers how the still image (in painting and photography) evokes an imagined temporal narrative experience: ‘the viewer provides, in imagination, the action leading up to the decisive moment, and the resolving action. An imaginary temporal contour is added while one watches a static image, it becomes a small emotional narrative’ (Stern 2004: 69).

[4] See Ernst van Alphen’s reading of how Hirsch’s familial gaze applies to family images: ‘The familial gaze, enacted by family portraits, projects familiarity onto the portrayed subjects, but also draws the looker into this network of familiarity’ (1999: 46).



I wish to thank Cathy Henkel, Sam Lara and Sophia Turkiewicz for the opportunity to have these interviews with them.



Alphen van, Ernst (1999), ‘Nazism in the Family Album: Christian Boltanski’s Sans Souci’, in Marianne Hirsch (ed.), The Familial Gaze, Hanover & London: University Press of New England, pp. 32-50.

Arnold, Sarah (2013), Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Bronfen, Elizabeth (1996), ‘Killing Gazes, Killing in the Gaze: On Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom’, in Renata Salecl & Slavoj Zizek, (eds), Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, Durham & London: Duke University Press, pp. 59-89.

Cixous, Hélène (1976), ‘The Laugh of The Medusa’, translated by Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893.

Conway, Martin A (2001), ‘Sensory-Perceptual Episodic Memory and Its Context: Autobiographical Memory.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B 356.1413, pp. 1375-1384.

Henkel, Cathy, Interview by Kerreen Ely-Harper, 13 August 2018.

Hirsch, Marianne (1999), ‘Introduction: Familial Looking’, in Marianne Hirsch (ed.), The Familial Gaze, Hanover & London: University Press of New England, pp. x-xxv.

Kaplan, E. Ann (1988), Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, London & New York: Routledge

Lacan, Jacques (2001 [1966]), ‘The Mirror-Stage as Formative of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, translated by Alan Sheridan, in Ecrits: A Selection, New York: Routledge,

Lara, Sam. Interview by Kerreen Ely-Harper, 1 August 2018.

Sayad, Cecilia (2013), Performing Authorship: Self-Inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema, London & New York: I. B. Tauris

Turkiewicz, Sophia, Interview by Kerreen Ely-Harper, 19 July 2018.

Wade, Eti (2013), ‘Refracting the Maternal Gaze: Mirroring and Mothering in Contemporary Photographic Practices’, The International Journal of Social, Political and Community Agendas in the Arts, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 29-38.

Winnicott, W. Donald (2005 [1967]), ‘Mirror-role of mother and family in child development’, in Donald W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, reprint, London: Routledge, pp. 149-159.

Winnicott, W. Donald (2008 [1971]), Playing and Reality, London: Routledge.



Writing Not Yet Thought: Helene Cixous in Conversation with Adrian Heathfield (2010), dir. Hugo Glendinning, (last accessed 2019).

The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face (2003), dir. Cathy Henkel.

Once My Mother (2013), dir. Sophia Turkiewicz.

Grantiki (2017-), dir. Sam Lara.

History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), dir. Rea Tajiri.

Wisdom Gone Wild (2015), dir. Rea Tajiri.

The Ties That Bind (1984) dir. Su Friedrich.

I Cannot Tell You How I Feel (2016), dir. Su Friedrich.

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