Rosine Mbakam’s lucid studies of labor and displacement in the lives of Cameroonian women seem to grow in political breadth with every effort, from her mother’s doorstep, to an expat-owned beauty parlor, to a sex worker’s bed. Mambar Pierrette (2023) is Mbakam’s first narrative feature after documentaries such as The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman (2016), Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018), and Delphine’s Prayers (2021). As with her previous work, Mambar Pierrette is attuned to the rhythms of laboring women and the communities enriched by their presence. Her pivot to fiction feels anchored by the same careful eye which surveilled Sabine—the salon manager of Chez Jolie—framing her in mirrors, between clients; a kinetic, reassuring presence.
Mambar Pierrette surveys Pierrette (played by Mbakam’s cousin, Pierrette Aboheu), a good-natured seamstress working to support her three children and elderly mother. On the cusp of a new school semester, she is sought after for dresses and school uniforms; clients haggle, she submits. Pierrette is, at times, too generous for her own good. She scans the textile shop knowingly, with a cool, affectionate familiarity with her craft; she feeds the fabric nimbly to the needle; her antique sewing machine is an instrument of care. Mbakam does little to differentiate this film from her documentary work. Her camera often tends to Pierrette from afar, deploying unscripted naturalism toward a promising mode of vérité docufiction.
A horde of miseries which imperil Pierrette and her family ensue: a nighttime burglary and a workshop flood; she has to borrow funds from her young son; her sewing machine gives out; she seeks aid from Social Services to extract child support from her children’s layabout father. Pierrette’s misfortunes are not framed as pitiable more so they are indictments of neocolonialism in Cameroon, those residual creases in the country’s socioeconomic fabric. “I didn’t want to tell the story of Pierrette the way the West would, I wanted to tell it the way we live it,” Mbakam told Film Comment. It takes a certain amount of reverence to relay your country to an international audience cavities and all, though Mbakam has always understood the whorling nature of homesickness.
Mambar Pierrette screens today and tomorrow, October 9 and 10, at the New York Film Festival, its U.S. premiere. Both screenings will be followed by conversations with director Rosine Mbakam.