Following the 1998 financial crisis that consumed post-Soviet Europe, Moldova endured an exodus of its working-age population. Included in this new migrant labor force was a significant number of mothers, who parted with their families to seek work in the West. Remittances sent back to Moldova became a bedrock of the country’s economy, peaking at a third of its GDP in 2006. Though these monetary flows ran in only one direction, migrant women were personally involved in a more complex exchange. Composed of home videos that Moldovan families taped for their wives and mothers abroad, Otilia Babara’s Love is Not an Orange (2022) expresses the fraught interplay between financial and emotional economies.
Frying pans, chocolate bars, picture books, dolls, makeup, boots, coats—the family videos in Love Is Not an Orange are full of stuff. Packages brimming with Western goods arrive laden with symbolic significance. Toys and trinkets serve as tools for long-distance parenting, mercantile tokens of maternal love. While savings slowly accumulate, these objects provide short-term reassurance, tangible evidence of the reasons for which the women have upended their lives. Access to Western consumption strains Moldova’s fragile identity, as foreign wealth underscores regional disparities. These tensions are palpable in the families’ daily lives, like when a father laughs at his children’s disgust with their porridge dinner, which the Italian pasta they receive in the mail has forever spoiled.
Babara displays a remarkable talent for shaping these domestic scenes, carefully constructing thematic and narrative layers from the casual, disordered nature of the archive. Deft editing pulls latent emotions to the surface of the images. When a gloomy birthday girl refuses to smile at her own party, the moment becomes a keen expression of how a child processes heartache; her birthday wish remains a secret, but viewers can easily guess what it might be. Another sequence links together light suggestions of some of the young characters entering puberty—yet another milestone their mothers will miss. The film renders absence with skill and imagination. In one poignant passage, an older sister points the camera out the window, watching her siblings walk to school until they disappear from sight. She does this every morning, as if looking with her mother’s eyes.
Love Is Not an Orange screens tonight, February 27, at the Museum of Modern Art as part of Doc Fortnight.