In the achingly beautiful short documentary “Mother’s Song,” filmmaker Matthew Brown investigates “the opera woman” of Seattle and carries us intimately close to a life we might just pass by on the street. Brown notes,
There is a woman who walks through the streets randomly singing opera. Wherever she goes she is singing, sometimes under her breath, sometimes loud enough for whole blocks to hear. Some people think she is deranged, some think she is inspiring. I was compelled to sit down with her and have a short conversation about Why. I only had an hour and a half with her, but she struck a cord enough that made me buy a ticket to go see my mom, heh. I decided that I would put this online and hope to inspire people to go embrace their mothers and children. She’s also a very prime example of why not to judge people by their eccentricities.
Though this is ostensibly a documentary about the opera woman, how Brown documents this glimpse into the woman’s life matters tremendously. Brown chooses to begin and end his documentary short with just a voice, her voice singing opera over a black, empty screen: this is the opera woman, Janna Wachter.
Brown does not just simply place his subject in front of his camera and leave the audience to judge or appreciate. He lures us first with her voice, her singing, then, in close-up shots, presents Wachter bare faced and vulnerable as she tells the story of her son, her grief, and her philosophy on joy and singing. We have a strong visual and narrative connection to Wachter before we see her on the street singing opera.
Another documentarian might have begun on the street, started with Wachter singing there without context, perhaps sought to evoke discomfort, anxiety, or judgment in the audience and then subverted it by revealing this woman’s story. This narrative strategy runs the danger of playing out like a trick, one used to embarrass audiences and show them their prejudices.
Brown’s narrative strategy, however, helps first build a compassionate relationship between the audience and Wachter, through the intimacy of her singing and then the profound vulnerability in the story she tells of her son. He gives us first the voice without the sidewalk, the bare face before the lipstick, the world indifferent and busy before she sings bursts into song on the corner for us.
Brown goes further though, departs from the realist conventions of documentary when he takes artistic liberty to emphasize the passion behind her opera: he knocks books to the ground and shakes the camera, crescendos the music so we, in an aesthetic way, might understand the emotional urgency and impulse to sing, the desire to break through the day-to-day into the sublime moment.
In all these ways, Brown’s film is not just endeavouring to build tolerance and compassion, or reflect on our superficial understanding of others, he’s building awe for a woman who lets candour and earth-trembling joy rule her life instead of decorum or polite pedestrian street etiquette.
— R. W. Gray