Cameroonian filmmaker Rosine Mbakam’s debut feature, Mambar Pierrette, opens with the mundane rhythms of domestic work. Mambar (Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat), a seamstress in the city of Douala in Cameroon, prepares lunch for her ailing mother and three children. She then wakes her mother, applies ointment on her feet, and informs her that she will be leaving for work soon. Mambar’s youngest son, Duval (Duval Franklin Nwodu Chinedu), excitedly talks about the money that he has saved up for himself. School is starting soon, and he wants a new bag and shoes. Mambar hugs Duval, and asks him what he would like for dinner.
Every action is as ordinary as it is momentous, for Mambar treats her household duties with a dedication that is both loving and tenuous. The camera lingers at the doorway when Mambar helps dress her bedridden mother, as if giving Mambar space in an otherwise claustrophobic house. Often, Mbakam tenderly directs our attention to Mambar’s hands through close-ups: we see the weariness with which she tucks crumpled cash into her bra, the exacting precision required to sew a kaba from scratch, or the laborious task of scooping water out of a flooded home. Gradually but surely, however, the weight of poverty accumulates like muddied rainwater on a strained roof.
While Mambar Pierrette is Mbakam’s first fiction film, the lines between fiction and reality are still blurred; Mambar’s character is played by Mbakam’s cousin — who is also a dress-maker — and many of her own relatives and neighbors also make brief appearances as fictionalized versions of themselves. Mbakam’s affection for her community shines through the interactions between Mambar and her clients, most of whom are also Mambar’s friends. In these scenes, Mbakam emphasizes the tactile; the happiness that comes from wearing a properly tailored outfit is elevated by the soft rustling of skin against fabric. “Mambar, I am happy,” a client sings after a fitting, and proceeds to show Mambar a picture of her boyfriend, whom she wants to impress with her new outfit. Another scene has Mambar sewing uniforms for her friends’ children for the new school year. The smiles on their faces imbues Mambar’s profession with life-affirming value; the drudgery of financial precarity exists alongside moments of joy, which prevents Mbakam’s film from being overly gratuitous in depicting continual cruelty that Mambar is dealt.
Every character, however brief their appearance, comes to Mambar with a fully realized story. Some are contemplating sex work in exchange for a visa, and others need new mourning attires. No experience is too small for Mbakam, whose film is committed to gently capturing the immensity of Cameroonian life. Throughout her work as a documentarian, Mbakam has always been interested in the experiences of the Cameroonian diaspora, particularly the lives of working-class African women. Both Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018) and Delphine’s Prayers (2021) are shot in a single room; the former takes place in a salon which, like Mambar’s shop, is a place of community and friendship for West African women. Unlike the subjects of these two documentaries, however, Mambar is constantly on the move; there’s always another chore to accomplish, client to meet, or obstacle that undoes all of her hard work.
At one point in the film, Mambar is robbed of her day’s salary. Having no time to mourn the loss of her earnings, she calmly moves on and collects her son’s new notebooks. That very same night, a flood destroys these notebooks, and Mambar is forced to use Duval’s savings to purchase new ones. Mbakam’s film is invested in the cyclical, unyielding nature of poverty in which images of tomorrow are scarce in the imagination. It’s in this way that Mambar Pierrette’s relentless pragmatism and unadorned aesthetic mirror films like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999). Both films hone in on a singular woman whose work is always undone, and the brutal honesty with which Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) and Mambar face their circumstances manifests in the films’ staunch refusal to pity their protagonists.
There is a verbal refrain that recurs throughout Mambar Pierrette: “What are you going to do now?” The material necessity of life supersedes Mambar’s personal desires — she can only attend to the next crisis, one after the other. “When battling becomes ordinary,” Sara Ahmed writes, “the ordinary can be what you lose.” Like disparate threads that are slowly woven into fabric, a series of unfortunate events form a seemingly insurmountable wall of hardship. Although the film is intimately focused on Mambar’s immediate situation, its edges are tacitly tainted by the country’s bloodied colonial history. This is most apparent when Mambar’s attempts to get help are turned down; she is told that the refugees of the Anglophone crisis need it more. In another instance, she is asked to attend a political rally in exchange for monetary compensation — a request which places her desperation above her beliefs. Mambar needs money, but she is not willing to be bought.
In particular, this crude request also opens up a larger conversation about the state of the arts in Cameroon. While being a seamstress is Mambar’s only source of income, her steadfast dedication is also rooted in a heartfelt passion and love for the craft. “I am pretty good, you can pay me more,” Mambar tells a client. Most of her friends haggle over prices, but they eventually pay Mambar what she is worth. But the request for Mambar to attend a paid political rally cheapens her craft by reducing every single dress to its price. Creation and precarity are incompatible, but Mambar finds a bittersweet balance in the satisfaction and happiness of her clients. Nonetheless, Mambar Pierrette is careful not to romanticize Mambar’s plight, always emphasizing that in another world, perhaps Mambar’s talent would flourish.
Outside of Mambar’s shop, there is a clown who performs on the streets for money. His face is painted white, similar to the alabaster mannequin that greets — or, on the contrary, scares — Mambar’s customers. It looks nothing like Mambar or her clients, but it stands there as testament to a Cameroon that is still being besieged by neocolonialism. Life still goes on for Mambar. Sometime in the past, the clown used to be a dancer.
DIRECTOR: Rosine Mbakam; CAST: Pierrette Aboheu, Karelle Kenmogne, Fabrice Ndjeuthat; DISTRIBUTOR: Icarus Films; IN THEATERS: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.