Documentary “Mama Bears” offers love and light for all who are lost: parents and children alike. [SXSW Film Festival]

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, [a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

– Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 26 and 27.

If one believes in Jesus of Nazareth, that he was the son of G-d brought to Earth to absolve the world of sin, then one must also believe in the Old Testament. This book, also known as the five books of Moses or the Torah, begins with the creation story in Genesis. In it, we learn about how all life came to be, the supposed foundation for all the ideas and beliefs which would follow. And yet, for some reason, a different interpretation of how to view all of creation came to be, one in which we’re not made in the Creator’s image but, rather, something sinful, something wrong. Because of this, innumerable children have been cast out of families, abandoned merely for living in a version of G-d’s image that defies the faith. Enter the Mama Bears. Founded by Liz Dyer in 2014, the organization Mama Bears is an online support group where parents can come together to get the support they need when cut off from others, as well as a place for children to obtain the parental encouragement they lack. Documentary Mama Bears, directed by Daresha Kyi (Trans in America) and premiering at SXSW Film Festival 2022, doesn’t so much dig into the organization proper, but tells the stories of three of its members and how the organization works toward the betterment for all by improving lives one at a time.

Kimberly and Kai Shappley1_photo by Kelly West

L-R: Kimberly and Kai Shappley in Daresha Kyi’s MAMA BEARS. Photo by Kelly West.

Mama Bears strictly follows three groups: Kimberly Shappley and transdaughter Kai, Sara Cunningham and son Parker, and Tammi Terrell Morris and her mother Tenita Artry. Rather than digging into the organization as the driving piece, Kyi follows these three sets of individuals and how/why their respective stories intersect with Dyers’s Mama Bears. For Kimberly, it is a place that provided support when she chose to support her daughter in her transition; for Sara, it is a place where she can provide the kinds of support to other people’s kids that she was unable to give to Parker in his youth; and, for Tammi, it’s a resource of support as her mother grapples with Tammi’s sexual preference. What’s fascinating about Kyi’s approach, the thing that makes her documentary so gripping yet full of love, is how open and raw it is. The participants are shown as they are now and they invite the audience to examine their pasts, allowing us to see how religion shaped their perception of what it means to be Godly, the existing schism in faith regarding the LGBTQA+ community, and how each one works to have a faithful life while not sacrificing their loved ones.

Sara Cunningham in church_footage by Amy Bench

Sara Cunningham in church in Daresha Kyi’s MAMA BEARS. Footage by Amy Bench.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Mama Bears will do little to move those already a little progressive, a little more open, to reconsider their feelings on LGBTQA+ rights in America. What I do think, though, is that this documentary offers a little bit of hope for those who think there is none. That there’s a growing shift away from conservative values, one’s which are anchored in bigotry, per the definition of “conservative,” into something far more inclusive, loving, and, fantastically, safe for all. Mama Bears is well aware of the pull quotes and talking points of the conservative political movement which seeks to impose laws determining who can use which bathroom via campaigns of fear, touting that a man can claim he’s a woman for a day in order to gain access to private spaces where little girls might be. This tactic, of course, ignores that being a member of the trans community isn’t something someone does for fun for a few hours and that the people who identify this way are more likely to be the victims of attacks on the street or in bathrooms than being the perpetrators. This is likely why Kyi follows the Shappley family. Kimberly describes herself as “born a Republican” who changed her way of thinking after her child struggled with gender dysphoria. Kimberly talks about the various techniques she and her then husband used to dissuade Kai of her gender identity, in tears as she describes the literal physical abuse they inflected on their child in the name of G-d. This is, of course, not how we’re introduced to Kai, nor how we get to know this bubbly and warm child, delighting in her life. She is living without fear, backed by her mother and younger brother. By showing us the profound support of a mother wanting her child to be safe while not holding back about what Kai endured before now, the audience isn’t being protected from reality. This is something that Kimberly did *to* Kai. She did it willingly and deliberately. It didn’t matter that it pained her or how it made Kai feel physically or emotionally, she was doing it to make Kai “better.” Mama Bears doesn’t turn a blind eye toward the suffering that unexamined faith causes, but it does focus a great deal on how leading with love changes the conversation and lives of those involved.

Tammi Terrell Morris1_footage by Jen White

Tammi Terrell Morris in Daresha Kyi’s MAMA BEARS. Footage by Jen White.

Where the stories shared by Kimberly and Sara are ones of parents not only coming to terms with who their respective children are as people, Tammi’s story is far less uplifting and more realistic. Tammi, we learn, has struggled with her sexual identity for years and, now, is only supported in her choices by her mother, Tenita. But where Kai and Parker are celebrated by their parents, Tenita remains bound by her faith, concerned for Tammi’s soul. At first, Tammi’s story seemed out of sync with those of Kimberly and Sara, mostly because she’s a mature child subject with children of her own compared to the young ages of the other two child subjects (younger than 10 or early 20s). Then it hits you that Kyi isn’t just showing us what unabashed love can do to change mindsets (both Kimberly and Sara are in some way involved in activities that shift public perception of the LGBTQA+ community), but how love can continue to exist even with a difference of religious view, that it’s possible to follow your principles without letting your children go. Growth doesn’t come without sacrifice, though, as we learn just what each of the subjects — Tammi, Kimberly, and Sara — lost to follow their current path. Through interviews with the central subjects, use of related news footage, family photos and videos, as well as just following them in their lives, Kyi makes sure to also focus on what they’ve gained: a lightness, a persistent joy, an exuberance of being.

If there is an issue to be had with Mama Bears, it’s that Kyi only focuses on the activities and details of the organization as the three subjects engage with it. Considering that the documentary borrows the name of the organization, one might reasonably expect greater focus on Dyer and her work. This isn’t to imply that we don’t learn anything about Mama Bears, we just do so within the limits of where the subjects take part.

Daresha Kyi (director_producer)_headshot CREDIT Naylon D. Mitchell

MAMA BEARS director Daresha Kyi.

For context in my reception of Mama Bears, I’m a Reform Jew who has gay relatives and friends, who has trans friends, and who doesn’t understand why any of those details matter. I’m not necessarily a person of faith, but I do think if we just listened to each other and respected one another, things might be different. While I, myself, may not follow the Bible, I’ve never understood how those who do seek to admonish or reduce individuals who aren’t seeking to hurt anyone, who are born attracted to members of their assigned at birth gender or who know themselves to be assigned the wrong gender at birth, justify denying them their truth if we’re all born in G-d’s image. How can there be something wrong with anyone if that’s the case? Kyi doesn’t offer concrete answers, but offers merely the shifted perceptions of her subjects, individuals who struggled either with their own identity or how to acknowledge it without losing their loved ones. If one goes by those shifted perceptions, many of which began by considering amoral statistics (high rate of transgender people commit suicide) or by what happened to children like Matthew Sheppard and making the conscious choice to do what they could to ensure their children would not endure the same, then there is also proof of hope for change — change which is born of love, the most agreed upon interpretation of G-d’s grace and presence.

Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

SXSW Screening Information:

  • Mar 13, 2022 3:00pm @ Alamo Lamar, Alamo Lamar E
  • Mar 14, 2022 9:00am Online Event, Online Screening
  • Mar 14, 2022 4:00pm @ Violet Crown Cinema, Violet Crown Cinema 2
  • Mar 14, 2022 4:30pm @ Violet Crown Cinema, Violet Crown Cinema 4
  • Mar 18, 2022 12:30pm @ Alamo Lamar, Alamo Lamar A

For more information, head to the official Mama Bears SXSW webpage or official Mama Bears documentary website.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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