Cameroonian filmmaker Rosine Mbakam uses familiar spaces as microcosms of society. After capturing her subjects in one setting, such as a mall in Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018) and the protagonist’s home in Delphine’s Prayers (2021), her narrative-feature debut Mambar Pierrette foregrounds the eponymous tailor (portrayed elegantly by Mbakam’s cousin, Pierrette Aboheu) and love for her complex family while attempting to make ends meet in Douala. She asserts a determined work ethic in her sewing, attracting a breadth of customers just large enough for Pierrette and co. to get by.

Unlike Mbakam’s past works, Mambar Pierrette puts Mambar across multiple settings: a store; her mother; and her divorced, abusive spouse’s residence. These voyages are laborious and aimed at improving her children’s lives. Her independent fashion work is what makes her kids fulfill their dreams. As her children and their friends play and mingle outside, Pierrette fatigues herself from her job and works in a living room to keep up with the bills. A white, female mannequin in front of her home frightens the villagers for its haunting eyes and a head placement looking down on them. It forces Pierrette to be realistic about her place in the world. Ongoing colonialism, European beauty standards, and other systemic barriers embedded in the figure inform Pierrette’s downbeat outlook.

Mbakam’s minimalist aesthetics demolish the binary between nonfiction and fiction to reflect Pierrette’s flawed, humane intentions across the nurturers from many settings. Pierrete’s passionate use of her sewing machine functions as the community’s pillar; it dispels the miracles and magic of their realities. Mbakam merges Juan Pablo Gonzalez and Claire Simon’s filmmaking––for his acute preciseness on making the political quiet and for her participant-collaborator process––to underline Pierrette’s role as the ensemble’s needle.  

After Pierrette discusses her inability to purchase a present for a friend, she’s advised: “Try to enjoy yourself a little. There will always be problems.” The low-wage economy, floods, and a (white) paternal hierarchy are inescapable for her and comrades. Yet these aren’t the only events for them to concentrate on: there’s a flourished Cameroonian culture to laud, as apparent in the woven fabrics of Pierrette’s clothing, and Pierrette and her friend Léonce dancing to a local band’s performance in the film’s final act to alleviate their problems. 

Some (neo)realist works that center on the hardships of lower-class communities, such as Bicycle Thieves and Nothing But a Man, often sensationalize their subjects through a poignant, albeit overdramatic score and spend a significant amount of time on a single tragic event. Mbakam repudiates these narrative tropes by showing less of the floods that often happen in the town and implementing a diegetic soundtrack that immerses outsiders in the Douala’s breeze, granting a taste of the entertainers passing by Pierrette’s house. Thus Mbakam grounds the lived experiences of her characters, observing the minutiae of maneuvering in a city with room for imagination amidst politics. 

Mambar Pierrette reveres the working-class mothers who provide a better possibility for their descendants, deal with their closed-minded wants, and pull tough strings to thrive in their standing. While honoring ancestry, Pierrette seeks to become a charismatic leader without having the burden of being strong, thus allowing herself to self-introspect and move on from her systemic-rooted issues with vulnerability, dignity, and communal unanimity.

Mambar Pierrette makes its U.S. premiere at the 61st New York Film Festival and will be distributed by Icarus Films.

Grade: A-

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