Reviews Short Documentary

Letter to my mother (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Amina Maher

Writer: Amina Maher

Running time: 20mins

According to the World Health Organisation, roughly 1 billion children aged 2-17 have faced abuse in the last year alone – a significant share of this being cases of sexual violence. More prevalent than we care to admit: abuse at a young age can cause enough physical and psychological damage to last a lifetime.

Those struggling with the after effects tend to do so in silence – out of shame, fear or embarrassment and a misplaced sense of guilt. Amina Maher’s short documentary – Letter to my mother – is a real and graphic insight into one such story.

The film focuses on Maher’s early life, and the sexual abused by their uncle on a regular basis between the ages of 10 and 14. It then explores how Maher has lived in adult life still struggling with questions about the incidents, and about their own identity. This young life spent reconciling with feelings of guilt and anger affects Maher’s relationships with those around him – including their mother.

The film culminates in the titular letter to Maher’s mother, in which the horrific events that scarred her child are recounted. It is a powerful catharsis, and the first step on a long road to healing.

The movie has some powerful footage – including imagery of a young Maher very visibly grappling with their emotions. We see a child with a flaring temper, unable to keep their calm when confronting their mother, while conversations with a counsellor offered much-needed comfort, delivering insight into sexual abuse that remains underexplored territory in popular discourse.

I feel obliged to note at this point that I have never been the victim of anything similar, and make no claim to understand what the character in the film or any viewer might be going through. It’s hard to be critical of a film so personal yet so relatable for all too many people – particularly when I lack a shared experience.

But my task here is to evaluate Letter to my mother as a movie, and in this case, there are some notes. I admired how Maher offered insight into character, both young and old. The story tied together beautifully, showing a young, troubled individual grow into a sexually liberated adult – one who still wrestles with inner demons, but appears to have found a degree of peace.

At the same time, I find footage at both ends of the spectrum to be long and drawn out at times. A shaving scene that goes on for nearly three minutes quickly makes the transition from liberation to uncomfortable silence. Footage of a car ride with sounds of an argument in the background feature regularly – driving the point home and then diluting it to some extent.

A striking image comes to mind, which flashes on the screen regularly without explanation. Perhaps an insight into the graphic and disturbing flashbacks of someone who has been through abuse, the image appears out of context, and appeared all too often without me as the viewer knowing what, or even who, it signified.

Letter to my mother is a powerful confessional, an emancipatory piece of art with a great deal of importance to say; but it is also a movie five minutes too long to hold the attention of many viewers. It is unfortunate to have to cater to such fickle and short-sighted needs, but it is also critical to the journey towards a more understanding and empathetic world. I stuck with the movie, knowing there was more and better to come. Here’s hoping many more will do the same.

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