Despite what stories tell us, our lives don’t end when we achieve the dream, overcome the adversity, or, worse yet, get taken down by the corporate monster trying to rip down the community center. Until we cease to function, the story continues and it’s up to us to write the chapter, no matter how often we have to start over. Those of us who are lucky can do so with community support, whether through friends and family, the kindness of strangers, or governmental programs. Exploring the tenacity required to live every day is writer/director Rosine Mbakam’s moving slice of life drama Mambar Pierrette, screening during New York Film Festival 2023 after having its North American Premiere at TIFF 2023.
It’s nearly the start of the school year and seamstress Pierrette Mambar (Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat) is under stress. Not only does she need to finish the dresses and school uniforms she’s been hired to complete, she knows that more orders are coming. This is the good stress, the stuff that helps her provide for her infirm mother and three children, two of whom are preparing to go to head back to school themselves. She draws energy from her customers who sit with her, share their lives with her, and recognize her contributions to the community beyond her skillset. However, when a series of negative events occur, even Mambar will have to dig deep in order to keep moving forward.
Simplicity is the key to Mambar Pierrette. Using only natural diegetic sounds, there’s no score to convey tone or influence mood, there’s only what is. At first, this gives the film a documentary feel as we either follow or observe Mambar as she goes about her life over a few days. The cinematography from Fiona Braillon (Baden Baden) supports this sense as it captures Mambar as naturally as possible, scenes either fully-observable or masked in darkness dependent on the lighting situation in the moment, Braillon’s work giving the sensation of intimacy without the barrier a narrative might create. With the lack of expected dressing, one may forget that Pierrette is following a script, executing blocking, and engaging with actors rather than existing within the city of Douala, Cameroon. Accentuating this is the manner in which Mambar responds to both the good and the bad that befalls her, taking each one in such natural stride (even when it’s clear how much the negative weighs upon her), whereas a typical drama would include a number of expected tropes. That focus on naturalism throughout the film pulls us closer in, making us care for Mambar, rooting for her the whole way, because there’s less of a distance between us and the imagination of Mbakam.
But it’s not just the technical that makes Mambar worth the watch as the exploration of duty to community, duty to self, and duty to custom are deftly handled within the 93-minute runtime. By making Mambar a seamstress, Mbakam gives the audience someone that would be essential within this period and place, someone who could alter or create outfits needed for everything from school outfits, weddings, dates, and anything else that a customer might need. Through the interactions with her customers, we learn about the goings-on about town, while also observing the integral symbiosis of Mambar to her community. If she cannot do her job, the rippling effect on what others cannot do is tremendous; likewise, if she cannot do her job, the family that she cares for on her sole income will fall into dire straits. Thus, it’s important, through these interactions, to notice when Mambar accepts less payment than originally agreed upon, when she pushes back, and the reaction from those around her when she herself must ask for help from others. There’s overlap in the exploration of duty to self and community, enabling Mbakam through Mambar to ask questions about customs, such as what wives do when mourning the loss of a husband, that new generations may not be keen to maintain. A straight drama may be more likely to directly investigate this, to make characters proclaim loudly their beliefs, but by using this quieter, documentary-like approach, the questions hang in the air, leaving the audience only to consider what we see and hear from Pierrette’s often internal performance. Don’t mistake quiet for not having an opinion as the narrative clearly does regarding certain customs, especially in the realm of gender and family roles. These are a guiding part of what makes the events that befall Pierrette so damned frustrating, because a shift in just one direction from a specific person could change the outcome. Yet, in a style that’s similar to stories involving single mothers in any country in near any period, just because one is knocked down does not mean they are out.
Whatever expectations you might have for Mbakam’s new film, leave them at the door. This is a delicate, slow-moving drama driven by Pierrette’s quiet yet no less powerful performance which will have you reconsider the ways in which you engage with the people who are most significant to you. With luck, it’ll even get you to move past yourself to see what they might need and how you can step up to help them. If all of us did that, we’d all be lifted just a little higher out of the storms that life brings to our doors — literally and figuratively. As demonstrated by Mbakam, it’s the choices that people make, selfishly or altruistically, that make the biggest differences on someone’s day to day life.
Screening during New York Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official NYFF 2023 Mambar Pierrette webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.