'Amazona': Film Review

Mother doesn't know best.

This intriguing Colombian doc, nominated for a Spanish Goya Award after winning critical plaudits at fests, traces the emotional and physical journey of its director to solve the mystery of her mother.

From the outset, it’s clear that Amazona is a film its director Clare Weiskopf felt emotionally compelled to make, because it’s about finding answers to some tough questions that her largely absent mother has left unanswered. This fact alone makes it pretty compelling viewing. On one level a personal detective story, on another a celebratory portrait of a remarkable woman, the documentary skips lightly, gracefully and entertainingly over major themes relating to the most primal of human relationships. Packing enough material into its 78 minutes for several soap operas, Amazona leaves you eager to know more.

The initial shot of this jungle-centered doc shows two butterflies alighting on a branch before finding symmetry for a moment and then again heading their separate ways. It’s a terrific metaphor for what’s to come. Director Weiskopf, pregnant, fortysomething and thus about the same age her mother was when she had her, has long since decided she needs to make this film before starting her own family. This will involve a journey deep into the Amazon jungle to find her mother, Val, now a remarkable, sprightly 80-year-old.

The first half of the film, co-directed with Nicolas van Hemelryck, is effectively a lengthy flashback about the history of Val, who left England at 23 for Colombia to be with her Colombian partner. Her life since then has involved two more relationships, four children by two different fathers, unhappy periods in England, experiments in communal living and lots and lots of traveling. Val values freedom above all things: "Your life is your life," she passionately tells us, and the idea that a woman might have to sacrifice herself for her kids is hateful to her. She wants a full life, free from routine. On paper it sounds great, but perhaps not so much if you happen to be, say, her daughter.

Colombia's Armero tragedy of 1985, a volcanic eruption followed by landslides, killed 23,000 people, among them Val's daughter from her first relationship, Clare's stepsister. Following that loss, Val and her partner canoed thousands of river miles to where she now lives, deep in the jungle, where Clare visits her.

Val herself is a formidable figure, a contemporary Amazon busy in the jungle keeping alive the '60s values of peace and freedom — though love not so much. More than a mother, she’s an artist, a singer (not a very good one), a values warrior and a lover, who still recalls with pleasure the power of the orgasm she had that brought Clare's little brother Diego into existence.

Much of Amazona's strength comes from the fact that the elderly Val has allowed her daughter to make the film at all. Despite the years of abandonment and Val's lifelong selfishness, the doc is a testament to their reconciliation. Toward the end, there are some pretty direct exchanges in which the pregnant Clare effectively accuses Val of being a bad mother, pointing to the sad decline of her younger brother as evidence.

The emotional dynamic is fascinating, posing the impossible-to-answer question of where a mother's responsibility begins and ends, or, in other words, what constitutes a good mother. But the film is not without its acidic moments of filial revenge: One striking scene has Val looking on in fascination as a live kitten is fed to a snake, then commenting only on what a lovely snake it is. Would you, Weiskopf seems to be asking here, want a mother like mine?

If all this sounds heavy, it isn't. As a narrative, it bounces along in a straightforward un-Amazon-like manner from one event of Val’s life to another, never falling prey to the kind of self-indulgence that affects so many intimate family docs. What's important for Clare becomes equally important for the viewer.

On the downside, Weiskopf's voiceover asks many big questions that are often unnecessary. The story itself raises them without her help, and indeed the film might have benefited from having no VO whatsoever.

Production company: Casatarantula
Cast: Valerie Meikle, Clare Weiskopf, Diego Weiskopf
Directors: Clare Weiskopf, Nicolas van Hemelryck
Screenwriters: Gustavo Vasco, Clare Weiskopf, Nicolas van Hemelryck
Producers: Clare Weiskopf, Diego Weiskopf
Director of photography: Nicolas van Hemelryck
Music: Camilo Sanabria
Editor: Gustavo Vasco
Sales: Casatarantula

78 minutes