TIFF 2023 | Mambar Pierrette (Rosine Mbakam, Cameroon/Belgium) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski.

In making the transition from documentary to feature film, Brussels-based Cameroonian director Rosine Mbakam builds on her greatest strength, which is portraiture. Like Delphine’s Prayers (2021), Mambar Pierrette is an intensive look into the life of one overworked but resilient woman, struggling to keep her family afloat against all odds. Pierrette (Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat) is a seamstress in the coastal city of Douala, raising three children alone while also caring for her infirm mother (Marguerite Mbakop). The house needs repairs, as does Pierrette’s sewing shop, but money is a constant struggle. 

This is Aboheu’s first film credit, and although she is a nonprofessional actor, she radiates confidence onscreen, even under the most trying circumstances. The first part of Mambar Pierrette is perhaps the most poetic, as Mbakam focuses on Pierrette’s meticulous skilled labour. The film is set just before the school semester begins, so many area women have hired her to make new dresses and school uniforms. Watching Aboheu’s facility with the old Pfaff sewing machine is gratifying, but each time Pierrette meets with a client, they haggle with her, demanding discounts or offering partial payment. Sometimes she agrees, out of exhaustion as much as kindness. The implication is that everyone in Douala is strapped for cash, which leads to rampant self-interest and the breakdown of community ties. 
For instance, the elders try to stop Pierrette from going to the Social Services office to demand child support from the kids’ deadbeat dad. “We all suffered,” they say, “but we didn’t denounce our husbands.” But they cannot offer her a better solution. (When Pierrette does go to file a complaint, the clerk blames her for her own predicament.) Mbakam demonstrates the uneasy negotiation of tradition alongside individual competition for resources, the result being that there is always some reason why everything is a woman’s fault: trusting the wrong people, not demanding a legal marriage, even failure to plan for natural disaster. At times Pierrette seems like a magnet for bad luck, in ways that bristle against the limits of credulity. There are aspects of Mambar Pierrette that are narratively clumsy, as one might expect from a debut feature. But in between the major events of the film, Mbakam offers a patient examination of Cameroonian life, in all its textures and tribulations. As Pierrette mutters near the end of the film, “God, this country…”