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Janet Merewether, Maverick Mother Janet Merewether, Maverick Mother
IN JANET MEREWETHER’S MEMORABLY IDIOSYNCRATIC AND HIGHLY INVENTIVE JABE BABE [BEST DOCUMENTARY, AFI AND IF AWARDS 2005, RT68, P18], THE SCREEN IMAGES OSCILLATE BETWEEN DOCUMENTATION OF THE SUBJECT, A YOUNG WOMAN SUFFERING THE LIFE-THREATENING MARFAN SYNDROME, AND RICHLY STAGED, WITTY PROJECTIONS OF HER FANTASY SELVES. IN MAVERICK MOTHER THE FILMMAKER HAS NOW TURNED HER CAMERA ON HERSELF USING A SIMILAR FORMULA, IF MORE COMPLEXLY AND EVEN MORE REVEALINGLY.

The film’s three-way dynamic comprises informal footage showing Merewether going about her life, meeting with family and friends as she resolves to have a child at 39 years of age and then grapples with the demanding experience. A second strand conjures often comic theatrical visions of herself, again beautifully staged; while the third, where she confronts the camera, or points it into a mirror she is facing, deepens the autobiographical richness of the film with intimate moments of self doubt, confusion, pleasure, fear and grief.

Shifting between these three perspectives, Merewether tells her story chronologically, from the time she decides to act on her feelings and have a child, to just how she does it (she’s not in a relationship), to telling her tolerant mother and disapproving father, to living through the pregnancy and a long and painful birthing, to becoming a proud mother, but one anxious about something missing. It’s the accumulation of anxiety, leavened by the comic theatrical asides and a home movie-ish lightness, that gives the film its emotional strength. From the beginning it’s clear that Merewether is not eager to be a single mother, but she can’t find a man to share parenting. So the solo mother option appears to be the only one. Sex with a bisexual friend yields no result (except his lover smashing a piano), the sperm bank option involves a six to nine month waiting list and, anyway, the description of the donors seems limited to hair, skin colour and occupation. And it feels humiliating for the filmmaker to be labelled as “socially infertile.” Merewether reflects on the irony of the sperm shortage given how men “splash their sperm around” (we watch it shoot onto and dribble down plush red velvet furnishings accompanied by male groaning), but notes the drop in donor numbers since offspring can legally trace their male parent. And then, chance plays its hand—Merewether’s pregnancy is the result of a one night stand at a Nine Inch Nails concert. Suddenly the implications and likely consequences of single motherhood loom large.

Despite a very supportive household and network of friends, Merewether suffers the absence of intimate sharing during pregnancy and acutely in early motherhood. She appreciates how society now tolerates single mothers in ways impossible in her mother’s generation, but she has to live with her father’s blunt espousal of those older values (along with belittling comments about Merewether being a weirdo artist and mothers as managers of ‘minutiae’). She tries to establish contact with the father of her child, hoping for a key male in her son’s life, but the man (a good dancer, she says, and into extreme sports) responds to neither letters nor phone calls, only visiting well after the birth. He’s as reticent and as non-committal as the tactfully blurred image we see of him when he finally appears.

Janet Merewether, Maverick Mother Janet Merewether, Maverick Mother
What appears to strengthen Merewether is her beautiful child, her mother’s acceptance, her brothers promising to take some responsibility for the boy, and hearing American writer Peggy Drexler on radio praising single mothers as mavericks “who make up the rules as they go along.” We viewers need strength too, sharing with Merewether numerous frustrations, the intimacy of a naked transforming body, a lot of birthing blood and baby shit, and tears as the filmmaker weeps into camera shortly after her baby has suffered a dangerous choking episode.

Stress and fear in Maverick Mother are, however, often made light of in the staged scenes, most of them brief if meticulously crafted episodes. Some play on cliches—baby floating on drifting pink cloud, baby in a cabbage patch, baby carried by stork, caveman bludgeoning a potential partner with his club, spinsters at spinning wheels. Merewether is frequently costumed herself—as a doll “left on the shelf”, as a blonde-wigged, cigarette puffing bad mum in sexy leopard print outfit in an apartment in disarray, or a young mother in the 50s about to be deprived of her illegitimate child. In the opening credits she is elaborately dressed and coiffed in baroque mode, large mock breasts bared, squirting milk, as she plays both actress and director while apt period music plays.

Drexler’s notion of solo, maverick mothers potentially reducing global violence yields other images: Merewether as a peasant suckling her child, the World War I dead seen in black and white through an open door behind her; as a 50s mother, an A-bomb plume filling the window; and as a 21st century career woman mother, the twin towers of September 11 smouldering in the near distance. Getting used to the idea that she will have to play mother and father, she reflects on what her father taught her—how to renovate—and we see her alternating between cake-baking housewife and butch home handyman. There’s a wry sense of joy in these transformations, of anything being possible. Merewether begins her film saying she felt like she’d been living on the sidelines of life; at its end she declares, “I am now inside the experience of living.”

Finally, we watch mother and child, “just the two of us”, at the beach in black and white, small frame footage, iterating the home movie idiom of Merewether’s film and the ties it suggests between past and present, and the very big differences. We hear her say, “I have juggled directing this film and directing my new life.” And we applaud her successful balancing act. Baroque is the right word for this film, its neat chronological structure, its tri-partite framing and witty fantasy-making and, as with the best Baroque music, the emotional power unleashed by careful, ostensibly casual crafting by writer-director, cinematographers, composer, editor and production and post production designers collaborating seamlessly.

in memoriam: jabe babe


It is with great sadness we report that Jabe Babe, the wonderful subject of Janet Merewether’s documentary Jabe Babe, died of heart failure, a complication from Marfan Syndrome, aged 34 on April 6. Merewether’s film is a fine tribute to her. Eds.


Maverick Mother, writer, director, producer Janet Merewether, director of photography Justine Kerrigan, pregnancy & birth cinematography Jackie Farkas, video camera Maverick Mother, writer, director, producer Janet Merewether, production & costume designer Melinda Doring, editor?Jan St Vincent Welch, post production designer Tim Ritcher, sound designer Liam Egan, composer Felicity Fox, Produced by Screen Culture Pty Ltd. 52 minutes. www.maverickmother.net. Premiere screening: SBS TV, Feb 1. DVD sales www.marcom.com.au

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 17

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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