For Maria Ebun Pataki is an important, yet sombre, tale of postpartum depression.
In a confident directorial debut, Damilola Orimogunje dares us to observe the unspoken, and often distressing, challenges of transitioning to motherhood. Set against the backdrop of modern-day Nigeria, we follow Derin (Meg Otanwa) and Afolabi (Gabriel Afolayan) in the immediate weeks of the birth of their new daughter, Maria. Jubilation and excitement do not fill this young couple’s household, however. Following a complicated delivery, Derin struggles to bond with her new daughter and we witness this initial disconnection evolve into ever-descending estrangement from her friends and family.
This film has been presented under the Beyond Nollywood strand of Film Africa 2020 – a collection of films which depart from the stereotypical tropes of commercial Nigerian cinema – and the reason for this is evident. It is a film that is unique in narrative and bold in its visual storytelling. Whilst it tells the story of a new mother at breaking point, it does so with consideration and sensitivity, void of any expected melodrama. A genuine sense of authenticity underpins the relationship we see on screen. Afolayan is wholly sympathetic in his portrayal of an excited new father who desires nothing more than for his wife to share his joy. Similarly, Otanwa’s deliberately distant performance perfectly embodies the sadness and confusion associated with postpartum depression. She looks through her loved ones, gazing beyond, with an expression of eternal contemplation. This leaves us contemplating what thoughts and feelings consume this new mother? Does she wish her daughter was never born, or rather, is it her own life she is questioning the merit of?
Orimogunje utilises the camera and clever editing to emphasise this feeling. The camera roams and follows, it peers around corners and lingers in doorways, as it invites us to witness Derin in her most isolated moments, her only companions being Sadness and Anxiety. High frame rate footage is also used, infrequently, to create a slow-motion effect. Whilst a stylistic choice, Orimogunje undoubtedly uses this technique to represent the lethargy of our lead character, who even walks with a laboured gait.
Despite the visual choices of the film and solid performances, at times, For Maria Ebun Pataki, feels more akin to a mental health awareness campaign, rather than a cinematic depiction of one woman’s story. The various symptoms of postpartum depression are reeled off, as are the more general physiological changes following childbirth (hair loss or bleeding gums, for example), yet these symptoms are left unexplored. We understand what emotions Derin is experiencing, yet less attention is paid to the why. Incidentally, when the film attempts to unearth the root of Derin’s depression, the reason provided feels contrived. Furthermore, the conversations between characters about the changing mental and physical state of Derin often lack depth, and unfortunately, both of these things contribute to a feeling of repetition, despite the film’s short runtime.
Nonetheless, For Maria Ebun Pataki is a film which needs to be seen, on the strength of the subject matter alone. It is a film which brings this hidden side of motherhood to the fore, inviting discussion in a society which tends to shy away from this difficult topic, and for these reasons, it is a success.
For Maria Ebun Pataki is showed as part of Film Africa 2020. See the rest of the Film Africa schedule here.
Keep up to date with Damilola Orimogunje here.