Documentary Releases: MADAGASIKARA (2018) - Reviewed

The African island nation of Madagascar has been romanticized so often in the media that its realities are a stark surprise to anyone unfamiliar with its history. Director Cam Cowan and Sohei Productions spent four years filming the documentary MADAGASIKARA, following the lives of three incredibly practical Malagasy women who, in their own words, tell the world what Madagascar is actually like, and what it means to try building a life there. The injustices against the Malagasy people are many, starting from the oligarchic government seizing power despite the will of the people, causing its international aid to be halted and forcing the population into extreme poverty – eighty to ninety percent of the Malagasy live well below the poverty line, and its children are suffering the consequences of malnutrition and stunting as a result. These are people forced to endure the world having largely turned its back on them, and while recent developments attempt to get aid to them, the damage done is irreversible.

Cowan’s film tells the story of these people, focusing on three women ranging in age from sixteen to around forty, each of them with families they must feed, clothe, and protect with the very little they have to work with.  Lin, fiercely and uncompromisingly raising her six children (and a grandchild) all by herself despite her lack of resources, wishing nothing for them but for a better future than the one she feels saddled with, wherein she launders clothes for less than a dollar a day and must trade sex for rice and meat to feed them, though she has dreamed of being a lawyer since she was a little girl. Deborah, a mother of two at only sixteen, tearfully recounts how she sold her body beginning at age twelve so that she could pay for an education, before she was given aid only to be forced to quit her schooling at thirteen when she had her first baby – a fact which she laments, wondering aloud how she will afford school fees for her two little ones, but determined that they will achieve something great in their lives. And thirty-two year old Tina, whose body is bent and aching from her years manually breaking gravel in a quarry – even when she was pregnant – moves to the countryside with her children to join her parents in a community where they are related to most of the people who live there, freed from the need to pay rent but still faced with the expenses of education and failing health.

It is difficult to watch mothers pulling parasites from the feet of their crying children. It is sobering to watch little boys and girls clamber over trash in a landfill looking for something to eat. It breaks the heart to see a peaceful demonstrator take a bullet and fall down dead right in front of his family. It is painful to hear a woman talk about her young child’s deteriorating health and the limited help there is available to her. But the film is truly powerful when it allows these women to speak for themselves, showing a nation of people who perform back-breaking tasks and struggle for basic survival so that they might help their children strive for better conditions, who use what they have to keep pushing forward despite nearly constant political upheaval and staggeringly widespread poverty. This is the reality of the rich taking everything they want from those whose labor created what they have, this is the reality of how children suffer, how mothers bury their months-old babies just so those who already own the world can have just a little bit more. This is the reality of what it means to turn a blind eye when a nation needs has its livelihood stripped away, and the people are left with only hardship and scarcity.

If the documentary suffers, it is when it moves away from the intimate lives of the women and their families; while the explanations of Madagascar’s political climate are vital to the viewer’s understanding of the people’s tribulations, these sections of the film are largely presented with text onscreen, which is cumbersome to read and slows the narrative. Far more effective are scenes depicting a protest, as peaceful people approaching the presidential palace are gunned down in the street simply for having and raising a voice for the children they are trying to create a future for, and contributions from those who have been trying to help understand the problems Madagascar faces as a nation. 

During a time when so many people the world over are fighting against injustice, trying to survive a global pandemic, and facing how inequality permeates every aspect of political actuality, this is an unflinching picture of a country and its resilient people too fraught with the needs of daily life to dream. The Malagasy people – symbolized in the bodies of Lin, Deborah and Tina and their families – are strong, beautiful, and deserving of so much more than the world has given them. MADAGASIKARA illustrates their boldness, their resourcefulness, and the joys and sorrows through which they navigate with honesty and sensitivity, and it asks those of us in positions of privilege to consider them, to revisit our own lives and the things we find important. It asks us to position ourselves in their unevenly-sized flip-flops, and stand up against oligarchy, inequality, and tyranny. Giving the people a voice to tell their stories is a step in the right direction, but there are still so many miles to go.

--Dana Culling