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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Reel Critic: “Mambar Pierrette”

In its concluding event of the semester, the Hirschfield Thursdays series presented “Mambar Pierrette,” the newest film from Cameroonian director Rosine Mbakam. The film, shown at Middlebury on May 2, follows the life of the titular seamstress, tracing her struggles with economic and gender-based challenges in modern-day Cameroon. Throughout the ups and downs of Mambar’s story, what truly captures and moves the audience is how she overcomes these adversities by connecting with others — particularly other women. That is the heart of “Mambar Pierrette” and the heart of Mbakam’s work.

Although “Mambar Pierrette” is not her debut film, this is her first narrative fiction film. (Mbakam’s previous works such as “The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman” (2018), “Chez Jolie Coiffure” (2018) and “Delphine’s Prayers” (2021) were all nonfiction documentaries). Despite being fictional, “Mambar Pierrette” remains heavily grounded in the facts of real life, at times feeling reminiscent of a documentary.

The movie’s opening scene takes place in Mambar’s home, where the audience is introduced to the film’s central family dynamic. Mambar (Pierrette Njeuthat), is a single mother trying to make ends meet who also takes care of her two young children and her aging mother. With no father figure in the picture and without her mother’s help, Mambar alone supports her family by making and repairing clothes. The next scene finds Mambar at her seamstress shop preparing for the long day of work ahead.

Instantly, the audience can sympathize with the amount of pressure that rests upon Mambar’s shoulders. Her shop is everything to her — it’s both her livelihood and  a place to bond with her clients and support them. Each time a new customer enters the shop and converses with Mambar, they chat about their troubles, which include their personal lives, families and money. The conversations that Mambar has with these other women are vulnerable, delivered in such a casual manner that it was often shocking to hear the characters talk about recent tragedies and hardships and then watch them easily move on from those topics as quickly as if they had discussed something as trivial as the weather.

There’s no flair for dramatics in the script of “Mambar Pierrette.” Everything feels raw and, oddly enough, less cinematic. There’s not a lot of complex camerawork; most shots remain locked in one position for an extended period during scenes, and the dialogue between characters often overlaps and can feel a bit messy. Additionally, the film does not include a score, a uniquely distinguishing feature of its composition. Instead, the soundtrack is composed of the lively sounds of Mambar’s neighborhood in Douala, Cameroon: the sounds of carts being pushed outside, the voices of adults and children shouting to each other, leaves rustling outside in the wind, birds chirping and the patter of feet as townspeople walk in and out of the background. This natural ambiance adds an extra layer of authenticity to the aesthetic of the film and makes the audience feel as if they are with Mambar in her shop.

For viewers who are drawn to larger-production film spectacles, they may find the lack of these elements surprising. However, Mbakam intentionally leaves out glamor in favor of highlighting the people of her story as authentically as possible — hence  why the film often feels like a documentary rather than a work of narrative fiction.

Despite what “Mambar Pierrette” lacks in terms of varied or “artsy” lighting and camerawork, it is certainly not lacking when it comes to casting. The ensemble consists of friends and acquaintances of Mbakam. In the title role, Njeuthat masterfully portrays Mambar’s unwavering resilience and determination in the face of setbacks. When her sewing machine breaks, when she is assaulted and robbed, and even when both her house and shop are heavily damaged by a flood, we never see Mambar give in to defeat. Instead, she pushes onwards and does whatever it may take for her to rebuild what she lost because, as she states one of the film’s most prominent themes, “life goes on.”

In an interview following the film’s premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, Mbakam acknowledged the unusualness of this attitude.

“I don’t see victims,” Mbakam said. “I see strong people… I didn’t want to tell the story of [Mambar] Pierrette the way the West would, I wanted to tell the way we live it.”

The abrupt conclusion of “Mambar Pierrette” leaves much to be desired. In fact, the ending takes the audience completely by surprise and leaves them in their seats asking, “Is that it?” Many of the ongoing conflicts throughout the film that Mambar deals with do not get resolved. The film’s lack of a conclusion serves as another testament to its theme that life simply goes on

Overall, Mbakam’s film may not be what most expect, but its stylistic simplicity and direct approach send a powerful message that tugs on the heartstrings of viewers. As a result, the audience is able to connect deeply with Mambar and sympathize with her struggles as well as those around her. “Mambar Pierrette” is a love letter to Cameroon and its people — and it is  definitely worth the watch.