CONCEPT / DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT
‘My first ‘maternal’ feelings were aroused whilst watching Eraserhead as a teenager. I knew then that I would never be a traditional wife
and mother!’ Janet Merewether
MAVERICK MOTHER is an autobiographical hybrid documentary about film-maker Janet Merewether’s embarkation on a journey of pregnancy and solo motherhood. In contemporary Australia, many educated working women find that they cannot find male partners willing to participate in relationships or parenting. Why are so many attractive and talented women single and childless? Has the breakdown of the marriage structure and the ability of professional women to ‘have it all’ enabled men to relinquish their responsibilities? Rather than accepting their fate as ‘barren spinsters’ and remaining childless, and due to the availability of work, childcare and donor programs, many of these women are now finding ways to conceive and raise children as solo mothers.
At the age of 39, Janet considered finding a bisexual sperm donor before joining a nine month hospital waiting list for an anonymous donor program. However, after a brief affair, Janet falls pregnant and decides to keep the baby even though the Swiss father vanishes. The baby was conceived the ‘old-fashioned way’ after a Nine Inch Nails industrial rock gig, quantities of vodka and a one night stand. With the help of friends and family Janet decides that she is well-supported in her decision to keep the child. She wonders whether the absence of a father will have an impact on her son later on in life. Will the father ever return to see his child and will Arlo ever meet his Swiss grandparents? What is the role of the father and how is this role changing in contemporary society? When Arlo‘s surfer father pays an unexpected visit on the baby’s first birthday, Janet is forced to consider her role as a solo mother, and whether, in the future, Arlo may indeed have a man he can call ‘dad’.
MAVERICK MOTHER documents the emotional journey from pregnancy, childbirth and the first year of baby Arlo’s life through video diaries, photographs and studio reconstructions. Through the interweaving of observational video with performative and archival sequences, the documentary examines the role of ‘mother’ and ‘father’, as well as the outdated notion of ‘illegitimacy’ and the stigma attached to the term ‘single mother’. The documentary acknowledges the pain of unwed mothers in the 1960s who were forced to relinquish their babies and the horrors of the the 1870s when solo mothers had little option but to commit infanticide through drowning or smothering their ex-nuptial babies. Archival photographs and footage of traditional ‘nuclear’ families will sit in contrast to images of a confident and independent 21st century mama.
Whilst on the two year journey, Janet keeps a video diary of her experiences. Video footage of daily life, yoga classes, medical tests and the birth show the physical stresses and sensations involved with pregnancy. Janet also films her family and friends and their responses to her unconventional decision to keep her baby as a solo mother. These video diaries also document Janet’s attempts to locate the father of her child.
MAVERICK MOTHER examines contemporary heterosexual relationships and the ‘ticking of the biological clock’. Janet made a conscious decision at the age of 38 to attempt have a baby, whether or not a father was involved. She initially tried to ‘make baby’ with a bisexual friend, but when his gay partner found out and smashed his house and piano to pieces, decided that anonymous donor would be a less complicated pathway.
Janet put her name on a hospital waiting list for a donor sperm program. She had seen too many women rush into disastrous relationships only to end up with a lovely baby but a miserable separation. In discussions with the hospital counsellor she learns that many women with absent or depressed fathers choose to become single mothers, as they are not dependent on, and do not have expectations of male support. Janet is forced to consider the relationship with her own father, who, along with his father, suffered periods of depression during his life.
The documentary shows examples of the donor profiles presented to the filmmaker when her name came to the top of the list. Distressed about the lack of information about the people themselves, other than their height, eye and hair colour and profession, Janet is uncertain as to whether to proceed with the program. She is worried that she and her child will never have the opportunity to meet the biological father or extended family. She is also influenced by an adopted friend who describes the distress she felt at not knowing her biological origins for most of her life.
Many single and lesbian women are now choosing to bypass the perfect husband and head straight for the baby, often turning to new reproductive technologies such as donor insemination and IVF, where specific aesthetic and genetic characteristics can be selected by the mother. In the documentary, a futuristic image of a sperm vending machine, where a woman selects the appearance and qualities of the baby she desires, will illustrate how close our society is to making ‘designer babies’ mainstream. Is this a reflection of consumerism or a consequence of the fact that many capable and loving women are not finding male partners willing to make the financial, emotional and physical effort to raise a baby? Their only solution is to be a ‘supermum’ and make the journey alone.
It is only several weeks after questioning whether to proceed with the donor program that Janet ‘falls’ pregnant in a bout of biological recklessness. Janet offered her lover a condom to use, which he declined so she has no guilt as to whether the affair was a case of ‘entrapment’. Also, as she had been keeping her ovulation temperature charts for six months in the expectation of using the donor insemination program, she believed that she was not ovulating that weekend and therefore was not as ‘risk’ of becoming pregnant. The positive pregnancy test was like a case of ‘immaculate conception’ - one night of passion and pregnant at the age of 39!
The documentary charts the pregnancy, birth and first year of baby Arlo’s life in Janet’s share household in Sydney. We meet Janet‘s flatmates and friends, and witness their interaction with Arlo. We also meet Janet’s parents, who represent the views of an older and more conservative generation. The documentary becomes a dialogue between the ‘fallen woman’ daughter and her father, who holds traditional patriarchal values in relation to women, working mothers and solo parenting.
Despite numerous attempts at letter and phone contact during the pregnancy, Janet does not hear from Arlo’s father until a text message arrives in acknowledgement of a letter and photograph that she sends him when Arlo is ten months old. Just before Arlo’s first birthday, Janet finally speaks on the telephone, and finds out that Arlo’s paternal grandparents, who are Swiss, are in fact living in Sydney, having migrated from Switzerland. The documentary charts the progress of Janet’s attempted contact with the baby’s father and family. This process is unexpected since Janet had assumed that she would be a solo mother and feels uncertain about the fact that she may have to share control over her child’s life in the future. However, she sees the positive potential of these new relationships, especially as her own parents are very elderly.
Told through a personal perspective, MAVERICK MOTHER examines serious social issues in relation to solo motherhood. In the twenty first century, the age of new reproductive technologies and women’s economic self-sufficiency, traditional concepts of the ‘nuclear’ family and the role of the father are being redefined. This is a film about a woman who set out to become a ‘single mother by choice’, but became a ‘solo mother by chance’, defining a new adventurous pathway, rather than settling for a traditional passage through life. Deciding to be a sole mother voluntarily is a new and increasingly common social phenomenon, which overturns the traditional patriarchal control of women’s lives and fertility. This has only been possible in the last 30 years, with the abolition of the concept of ‘illegitimacy’ and the introduction of the supporting parents’ benefit in 1975, as well as equal rights in terms of education, wages, child-care and property ownership. The film shows alternative models of living such as the share household and extended family which provide the child with a ‘village’ structure in which to be raised.
An increasing number of women are choosing to become single mothers by choice or chance. Are men in the west, by their frequent unwillingness to participate in parenthood, making themselves redundant as fathers? Peggy Drexler writes of the phenomenon of single and lesbian mothers in her recently praised book Raising Boys without Men - How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men. She overturns the myths that imply that single mothers cannot raise children adequately, or that the sons of single mothers will be gay, drug addicted or disadvantaged. Instead, Drexler writes that women who raise children without fathers instil a strong value system, emotional intelligence and communication ability in their offspring.
Contemporary Australian society appears to have an increasing fertility rate, and yet countless educated working women of child bearing age are unable to find male partners willing to share the responsibilities of parenting. These women are not the stereotypical ‘spinster’ types, but are healthy, attractive and smart women who for some reason or another cannot meet their match, despite their desire for relationships with men. They are not ‘selected’ by men as mates as their confidence is off-putting. These women are often unprepared to ‘marry down’, to use an expression from the past. The documentary will ironically rework the concepts of Darwinian selection and survival of the fittest, in exploring why it is that so many educated women cannot find husbands or partners willing to raise a family.
There are few incentives for women to have children in a society which is increasingly materialistic as they risk losing economic and career advancement. Despite this, more and more women are now responding to the loud clicking of their biological clocks, and are deciding that having a child is a sacrifice worth making. Up until the early 1970s, unmarried women who fell pregnant were socially stigmatised, and forced to abort, relinquish or murder their babies. Unwed mothers were deemed by psychologists as damaged, a threat to society, and bordering on the criminal class, to be equated with murderers and drug users. The documentary will also consider what women in other cultures, such as in the middle east or Africa might experience if they were unwed and pregnant today. Would they be murdered? Imprisoned? Shunned? Today in Australia, solo mothers have the choice to raise healthy, happy children without such social, legal and financial prejudice.
Solo motherhood is now on the verge of becoming chic in the west, a sign of ultimate independence. MAVERICK MOTHER will interweave observational, home movie, archival and reconstructed sequences to create a personal and at times irreverent film diary, following life before, during and after the birth of the filmmaker’s son Arlo. This documentary taps into a very current and contentious debate about the nature of ‘family’ in contemporary western society and contemplates the past, present and future concepts of motherhood, and the attitudes of women who, rather than being ‘left on the shelf’ by men because they are too smart, too funny, too ‘ugly’, too talented or too independent, embrace their own sexuality and fertility to immerse themselves in life’s greatest love and greatest challenge.
MAVERICK MOTHER – STYLE
In a similar vein to Janet Merewether’s previous documentary Jabe Babe – A Heightened Life, MAVERICK MOTHER interweaves observational digital video footage with visually stylised and often ironic studio sequences and archival footage to create an original hybrid aesthetic. The fictional sequences integrate set and costume design with digital composited green screen effects in the construction of dramatic, colour-saturated subjective and imaginary worlds.
Janet performs in various ways in the documentary. In the video diaries the camera becomes a companion, a site for confessional monologue, a witness to events and a tool to prompt social interaction and communication. In the studio Janet performs multiple roles which include the perfect housewife, the Madonna, the lactating mother, the ‘father’, and the trashy breeder.
MAVERICK MOTHER constructs the wild visions, bizarre cleaning habits and vivid dreams of the pregnant woman. The documentary is full of contrasts, ranging from tableaux of angelic babies to observational footage of the realities of motherhood such as the brown mess of the nappy.
The fantasies and realities of motherhood are exposed in surreal glory and banal detail.
The horror genre is based on men’s fear and awe of childbirth and society’s perception of woman’s blood being the source of utter abjection. Women are seen to have threatening animalistic functions in their desire to reproduce, as explored by David Cronenberg in films such as The Brood. MAVERICK MOTHER, in examining the apprehension and fear around birth, reconstructs several pastiches of the horror film in a postmodern reworking of the genre.
The studio sequences also reference a range of film genres, such as 70s porn and romance. Several sequence are informed by renaissance art and photomontage traditions, such as the image of the lactating woman, the Madonna and child and the breastfeeding mother. This eclectic range of visual references broadens the film from the personal, to the universal, to the historical as well as raising the question as to whether a woman can be both creative artist and creative mother.
MAVERICK MOTHER aims to extend conventional documentary form through the innovative treatment of design and performance. By utilising a highly personal approach, the director seeks to explore the universal subjects of the desire for children, the role of the mother and the past and future structures of the family. As the title implies, the documentary explores the life of a maverick mother who is also a maverick filmmaker.
go to top
go to top