'La Mami': Film Review

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Illuminating tribute to hard-working ladies of the night.

Laura Herrero Garvin's sophomore feature-length documentary takes viewers behind the closed doors of a Mexico City nightclub.

Three years after making an auspicious debut with The Swirl (El Remolino), Mexico-based Spanish director Laura Herrero Garvin returns with another study of stoic female fortitude in La Mami. Taking us inside the ladies' toilet-cum-cloakroom at a legendary Mexico City nightclub, Herrero Garvin crafts an intimate, often amusing, invariably informative delve into a semi-hidden world — one which very few males ever even glimpse. Warmly received by audiences, buyers and critics alike when bowing in the main competition at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, this unassuming, distaff-oriented crowd-pleaser looks set for a busy festival tour and could even warrant theatrical distribution in receptive territories.

In total contrast to The Swirl, which mostly unfolded under big skies in the wildly elemental, flood-prone rural hinterland of Mexico, the Spanish co-production La Mami is entirely an experience of interior spaces. The bulk of the compact 80-minute running time takes place in the cloakroom where the eponymous "Mami" rules the roost. This taciturn lady of indeterminate later years dispenses carefully folded toilet paper and motherly wisdom with a jaded, seen-it-all demeanor. Short scenes at the beginning and the end take us downstairs from this relatively tranquil retreat, into the noisy main space of La Barba Azul.

Mainly catering to locals with also an attraction for more adventurous tourists, the "Bluebeard" is a 1950s-vintage niterie in a less-than-salubrious quarter of North America's biggest metropolis, where the house band incessantly socks over classic salsa, merengue and percussion-heavy "son" (folk) numbers. A cabaret-type business which commingles old-school glamour with a touch of shady squalor — murals feature infernal flames licking the walls — La Barba Azul is the workplace of nocturnal ladies known as "ficheras." These professionals dance with their partners for a small official fee of around one U.S. dollar — supplemented with expensive drinks and tips. These are not, it is carefully pointed out at one stage, actual sex workers ("putas"), though it's hinted that certain transactions may be agreed upon between the hostesses and their clients.

We learn that La Mami herself spent a full 10 years as a fichera, when she operated under the nom de nuit "Dona Olga" (her real name is never divulged). That means a taxing decade of nightly dancing and drinking — the latter activity conducted more for practical reasons than for motivations of pleasure. The more the customers imbibe, the more money the club makes — and none of the patrons want to consume such pricey beverages alone. Also, inebriation is sometimes the only way to endure the more unpleasant denizens: "A rude, annoying, ugly, horrible brat!" is how one of the ladies scowlingly recalls a 20-year-old she's just had the misfortune to partner.

Dona Olga, whose sole income is from gratuities ("You can tip as much as you wish" is her wry, recurrent refrain) provides a listening board, a shoulder to cry on and a reliable source of hard-won wisdom. Although sympathetic, she's more stern than cuddly, guarding her emotions behind an impassive mask and carefully applied makeup. Few biographical details are revealed along the way — Herrero Garvin adopts a standard fly-on-the-wall approach — but it's evident that this mother of four has had a tough time of it. "They killed one of my girls," she remarks in matter-of-fact style at one point; no further comment is made. 

Among other things, La Mami is a study of long-hours labor and cumulative fatigue: Every one of Dona Olga's wheezes and groans (as well as this devout Catholic's numerous whispered prayers) seems to be captured by Eloisa Diez's attentive microphones. Her mobility reduced by encroaching old age and stately avoirdupois, she goes about the business of cleaning and freshening the toilets — which she flushes with buckets of water, the management having supposedly cut off the booths' mains supply — with patient, doughty resignation. 

The other main focus is on an experienced fichera, Priscilla, who also has family woes to contend with: Her son is a cancer patient under hospital treatment. Other hostesses come and go, plus occasionally even a non-dancing patron such as an American woman who enthuses about "friendships that you make in bathrooms... ." Such friendships are largely of a distaff nature, and La Mami is one of those films which only a female director and crew could have made; the camera operator, lighting crew and sound recordists are all women. Herrero Garvin and company have evidently earned the trust of Dona Olga and her customers, their film winningly emerging as warm, humanistic evocation of sisterhood against a fascinating demi-monde backdrop.

Production companies: Cacerola Films, Gadea Films
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Laura Herrero Garvin
Producers: Laura Imperiale, Patricia Franquesa, Laia Zanon
Editors: Lorenzo Mora Salazar, Ana Pfaff
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Competition)
Sales: Dogwoof, London

In Spanish 
80 minutes