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Mambar Pierrette ★★★★



Directed: Rosine Mbakam

Cast: Pierrette Aboheu, Karelle Kenmogne, Cécile Tchana, Fabrice Ndjeuthat

Released: London Film Festival 2023

Set in Cameroon, within Douala, Mambar Pierrette seems like a modern-day version of Mandabi – where Murphy’s law prevails, meaning that anything that can go wrong does! At the start of the school year, Mambar is in demand as she works as a seamstress. However, her skills are tested when she is a victim of several unfortunate co-incidences threatening to disrupt her livelihood. This is a humane examination of slow cinema with a compelling lead and insights into community life. Therefore, it is an impressive feature debut from director Rosine Mbakam featuring her natural life cousin Pierrette Aboheu in the lead role, which will draw parallels to Mbakam’s historic documentary filming.

Mambar, or Pierrette, as some locals call her, is the heart of the community. People visit her after work or before school and on special occasions for her to introduce some magic to their lives through her weaving of cotton thread and fabrics to produce garments. Clothes make the man or woman, says the famous proverb, and Mambar is thus well placed to delight her customers and comfort their woes with her sewing table manner. Of course, it’s the ideal opportunity to stay abreast of the village gossip! Mambar is passionate about her craft as she diligently sweeps the loose, discarded portions of fabric from her floors and dutifully places her sewing machine in a safe location under the auspices of a neighbour’s home.

Not everything seems harmonious, however, as some customers casually remark that Mambar likes money and tries to negotiate down her prices. Such is the dilemma for many sole traders when transacting with friends and family, who believe they should be entitled to ‘mates’ rates’ without considering the impact on the sole trader’s livelihood. However, Mbakam does not fail to remind, via the focus on Mambar’s receipt of cash in hand, that her living circumstances are mainly precarious, as her roof appears to require mending whilst there is flooding.

Mambar is the sole benefactor of her household and also appears to be a carer for an elderly relative, who remains quietly within the eaves of the home. But such a relative is another dependent for whom Mambar has responsibility. Her burdens seem many as Mbakam quickly establishes the extent of the responsibility placed on Mambar, who also has three children living with her.

However, the film extricates itself from the clutches of the archetypal kitchen sink drama within this slice-of-life focus. Despite misfortune and a bleak starting point for Mambar’s existence, the film has poetry and an even pace. Instant sympathy is attached to Mambar via intimate close-ups and the extent of her plight as she effectively lives hand to mouth, but she exudes warmth and compassion. She has pride in her work, and her loyalties to her clients are admirable. Mbakam delves into this notion of the support within this community village but also subtly criticises the condescending attitudes and patriarchy.

Despite their sympathetic veneer, some of the villagers cannot resist chiding Mambar – for both living in a minimalist, unstable house and having children out of wedlock. In these moments, the parochial analysis of small village life elevates the film beyond a simple characterisation as a depressing portrait of bad luck for one woman. Mbakam has provided a heartfelt depiction of a generous woman trying, unsuccessfully, to be all things to many. The female lens provides that added socio-economic insight concerning a mother’s desperation due to the fragility of her life setup, similar to a deck of cards crumbling under a small gust of wind. It is an emotionally fuelled portrait of exasperation and guilt rearing their heads.

Thankfully, Mbakam consciously chooses to produce a multi-faceted storyline highlighting a community that can be both a help and a hindrance. Mambar Pierrette equally tackles the conflict of the acute burden for a mother without state assistance in a world where many male figures seem lacking or absent. It’s a tale with a heart that underlines the value of an intact support network. Whilst the film’s overall message emphasises the need for self-belief, Mambar Pierrette‘s focus on having a good dose of tenacity and resilience to overturn misfortune and contend with life’s curveballs along the journey provides that feel-good sense of empowerment that will resonate.

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