A Mother Apart Review: Bridging Emotional Distances

Hot Docs 2024

4 mins read

A Mother Apart
(Canada, 89 min.)
Dir. Laurie Townshend
Programme: Persister


This extraordinary portrait of a woman haunted and scarred by abandonment turns into a tale of real strength and joy. That’s because as poet and activist Staceyann Chin searches for her mother, we experience the writer’s wondrous relationship with her own daughter Zuri and her growth into a mature woman who can accept her mother’s flaws.

Chin tells her story mining old photographs, video she shot as an adult, online posts she created with Zuri, and scenes lensed by OYA Media Group and the NFB team, under the direction of Laurie Townshend.

When Staceyann was nine, Hazel left her in Jamaica and settled in Montreal, leaving her daughter in an unsafe relationship with relatives who did not protect her from predatory male cousins. For years, Staceyann lived with sadness and intense rage at a mother who chose her own freedom over her daughter’s well-being and safety.

But Staceyann had talent. A sequence two minutes into the doc features the charismatic poet howling in spoken word about her lonely and sometimes terrifying childhood while demonstrating a stunning gift for language and performance. Her charisma pulls you in and never loosens its grip, making her an ideal documentary subject—passionate and compelling.

When Staceyann comes out as a lesbian just before she attends university in Jamaica, she experiences homophobic harassment that drives her off the island to environments more open to queer people. It’s while she’s in New York City that she starts to write furiously, declaring that pursuing a career centering on her lesbianism was what she’s meant to do. She becomes successful as a playwright, one-woman show performer and an award-winning poet, which is an inspiring story in itself.

And she has a child. Her relationship with the precocious Zuri, born in 2012, is loving and nourishing, the obverse of that with her own mother. Early in the film, the nine-year-old Zuri reads a poem she wrote about why she loves her wild, curly hair. Plainly, Staceyann has had a deep influence on Zuri, teaching her respect for herself and pride in her race. Excerpts from the video series called Living Room Protest, which the two posted during the pandemic, further demonstrate this point.

Staceyann decides to search for her mother, starting in Montreal where she encounters Hazel’s neighbours and friends who speak glowingly of her and her daughter—another one, not Staceyann. Staceyann has been erased, which only adds to her torment.

As the film unfolds, the focus shifts as Chin continues her search for her mother. Through her process, she discovers more about the woman who left her, her psychological makeup, and the impact her choices had on her life, especially in terms of emotional capacity.

The essence of A Mother Apart then becomes not Chin’s painful childhood, but rather her moving journey from anger to empathy. She discovers how to find grace for someone who failed her.


A Mother Apart premiered at Hot Docs 2024.

Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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