If the past is a foreign country, so is the present for the residents of Baan Kamlangchay, a care home for Europeans with Alzheimer’s in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The surroundings are lush, peaceful and balmy; just as warm is the gently loving care administered by Pomm, a nurse who patiently walks, talks and sings songs with her elderly charges as if they were her own parents. This is her story as much as theirs.
In the wintry hills of Zofingen, Switzerland, we meet the next family preparing to send a loved one to Chiang Mai. There, Maya, only 57 but already with advanced dementia, will receive better care than her husband and daughters can afford to give her at home. Pomm and her colleagues will dote on Maya around the clock. “We have to put our own wishes aside,” says her husband, Walti. Yet is it the right thing to do? It’s a question that animates and bedevils Kristof Bilsen’s deeply affecting documentary, Mother.
And it applies not only to the European families. Pomm too grapples with the guilt of leaving family behind. “I take care of other people but I don’t take care of my mum,” says the mother of three, whose work takes her six hours from home, meaning that she only sees her children once a month, the rest of the time leaving them in the care of her own elderly mother and the children’s unseen father. This is one of those documentaries that seems to have one obvious initial focus, ends up following a more interesting tangent and ultimately comes full circle in unexpected ways.
Pomm is lovingly tactile with her western patients but says she cannot hug her own mother for cultural reasons. And she may be detached from her family but sees them far more often than many Thai nurses working in care homes in Europe. The Swiss family meanwhile, by providing better care, are depriving Maya of familiar faces, surroundings, even her mother tongue. The “outsourcing of care” can seem outwardly selfish but is done for the most selfless reasons. Such jarring contradictions and parallels lend troubling complexity to Bilsen’s unblinking but admirably impartial film. As a viewer, you may find yourself struggling at times to match its non-judgmental eye.
Alzheimer’s, by its very nature, is a disease that resists narrative, and Mother is a film with far more questions than answers, literally so in one of its final and most poignant scenes. “Are you well, Maya?” “Can you see me?” “Why don’t you sit down and talk to me?” asks her husband in a one-sided Skype call. Ten thousand miles away, Maya has no reply, staring past the screen with uncomprehending eyes. There is no flicker of distress or resentment. But was it the right thing to do?
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