In Her Mother’s Arms is not a pretty looking/feel good documentary in any sense of those terms. On a technical level, it’s shot in shaky handheld cameras that aren’t just consumer grade, but years out of date. In terms of content, it’s a harsh and depressing affair that’s difficult to watch, but all the more rewarding for it. The doc is one of those “content over style” movies where the rough edges are forgivable because what’s inside the unstable frame is so compelling and emotionally devastating. It’s not a film destined to clean up at the box office, but those who see it are at least sure to be moved.
The film was shot in Iraq and deals with the epidemic of orphans as a result of the ongoing war. According to Unicef there are around 800,000 orphans in a country with only 24 poorly managed and under-funded state orphanages to care for them. Those institutions are essentially breeding grounds for criminals that cause far more emotional damage to the fragile children than any help the shelter provides, with many of the kids being sexually and physically abused or sent out into terrorist networks. This film isn’t based in that world though. The cameras are focused on Husham Al-Dhbe, who’s determined to save war-orphaned children from those hellholes. Over a relatively short period of time, he has found 24 orphan children begging on the streets and houses them in a two room home where he provides a nurturing presence and keeps them in state schools to give them all a shot at a positive future.
As you might expect, running a shelter like that isn’t particularly easy for Al-Dhbe. He’s speaks to officials who wish to give him aid, but the government is so corrupt that he has zero chance of receiving any financial assistance. His few employees are volunteers and his own family life has been stretched to the breaking point from the stress and the obligations of his struggling charity project.
As the film begins, his landlord has decided to evict Al-Dhbe and the children from their home and he has no alternative space. Al-Dhbe is forced to beg for help and receives little despite the incredible service he provides. Three boys get enough camera time to be explored as personalities and they come from such vastly different backgrounds that it proves just how vital the make-shift orphanage truly is.
Saif Slaam is a 7-year old with an incredible singing voice and passion for his craft. Mohamed Waal is an understandably moody teenager who is also a major member of the national Iraqi youth diving team as well as a musical talent. On the other side of the scale is Salah Abass, a 10-year-old boy who has suffered so much heartbreak and trauma in his brief life that he can’t even speak or attend regular public schools.
Directing siblings Atia and Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji gain such surprisingly intimate access to the Al-Dhbe and the boys’ lives that can be difficult to watch at times (in the best possible sense). A few moments feel too good to not be staged or at least slightly manipulated in some way (such as a few unfortunate meetings with potential investors and when Al-Dhbe’s wife angrily confronts him at home about the damage he causes the family), but for the most part the entire tale feels vividly and tragically real. Like most human rights documentaries of this sort, the goal is to elicit empathy and rage in the audiences in the hopes of getting some sort of support. That’s a modest mission accomplished in this case as it is clearly a very sad and hopeless situation. In Her Mother’s Arms could never be described as “the feel good film of the year,” but it is a more than worthy movie for anyone interested in these sorts of issues. A little passionate rage is only 90 minutes away for anyone who buys a ticket.