Amina Maher is brave. Her short film “Letter to My Mother” is a triumph and a courageous way for the filmmaker to break her silence about the abuse she endured as a child. She has spoken out about it in the past, and her mother is now aware of the sexual abuse that was done by her brother-in-law to her daughter from the ages of 10 to 14. Maher’s film is an intimate and symbolic self-portrait that probes the truth of her pain and healing. It is a work of art comprised of many layers, including scenes from Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 film “Ten,” where she played herself opposite her mother. There are also powerful scenes where Maher shaves her hair, which are intersected with the audio of her sessions with a therapist. Though this picture is hard to watch, it is essential. Maher has come a long way in her healing as she’s come out as a trans woman. Since English is not Amina’s first language, the following discussion has been edited for clarity.
“Letter to My Mother” is streaming as part of the Cinema Femme February Showcase. Today is the last day to watch the film on our festival platform, but you can follow “Letter to My Mother” (@lettertomymotherfilm) on socials and their website to keep up to date on future screenings. Also, watch the LIVE Q&A Amina took part in with the other February Showcase female filmmakers.
We started our conversation talking about what her inspirations were for the film. We talked mainly about the psychological aspects that influenced the style of the film, but regarding inspiration, she said, “I don’t really have inspirations for this film, because I tried to keep the format free and pure.” Incorporating graphic content such as images of genitals and breasts in an artistic way was freeing. “That’s why the film looks experimental and inventive,” she said. This graphic imagery is accompanied by the audio of Maher’s session with her therapist, which represents her journey into the darkness of the unconscious. Maher refers to herself as “a seeker.” She wanted to experience those moments, and then act intuitively. She also felt it was important to go into the unconscious to represent being a victim of rape. It was important for her to explore the psychological consequences of rape, and the feelings that go along with them, such as anxiety, repression and shame.
I asked her about the significance of the shaving scenes in the film. These scenes made the film hard to watch for me, but I appreciated how it helped me partake in Maher’s journey on an intimate level. She explained that the body and the psychology of a person influence each other. The body and the mind carry the experiences of abuse. The shaving was “a metaphor for me to extricate myself from this traumatic event.” It is impressive to see how the layers of this film came together. Like any other true work of art, when you deconstruct the images, the film becomes even more meaningful. This is true when you look at the shaving scenes paired with the voiceovers. Maher said there are only 21 short sentences of voice-over throughout the film. The rest of the dialogue comes from the conversation she taped with her therapist. The first line in voice-over says, “Mom, I hurt myself,” followed by, “I felt guilty that I enjoyed it,” and then, “I felt shy talking about it.” The shaving scenes are conspicuously quiet. It is only once all the hair is shaved off of Maher’s body, with the exception of her head, that she looks at the camera directly and tells her mother in a loud voice who abused her, and for how long. “The child was able to grow up and break their silence,” says Maher, referring to herself.
Through the film, Maher incorporates clips from celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 film, “Tem,” which she and her mother starred in as themselves. When I asked her what the significance was of using clips from “Ten” in her short, she said, “It was very important for because my movie is called ‘Letter to My Mother,’ and that film, ‘Ten,’ is a documentation of our life.” When Maher was in the film, she did not know that a camera was recording her, and it was interesting for her to watch those scenes to understand more about the feeling of her relationship with her mother. She also could get acquainted with herself and see her face as a child, hear her voice as a child, and witness the interaction between her young self and her mother. The title of Maher’s film represents the distance she has put between herself at that time and her life now, because the film was shot during the time that the abuse administered by her mother’s brother-in-law began.
The distance was important because, according to Maher, “We can tell these secrets that couldn’t be addressed, and you need to have that distance, which also protects me and enables me to be who I am. It was around the same time the rape started to begin.” She appreciated the scenes that were in the film that contrasted with herself as a boy in “Ten,” particularly the ones where she is applying make-up on her face. To Maher, this represents her transformation as a trans woman. The scenes in “Ten” have some powerful quotes by Maher, like when the child tells the mother, “I can’t belong to myself. I must first grow up, and then I can be on my own.” Putting this line in her short was important to Maher. “Children are the most vulnerable part of our society,” she said. “They can’t protect themselves, and they can be abused easily.”
When I asked her what she hopes people see in her film, she said, “I tried to be symbolic in the film in how the shaving reflects my choice to break my silence.” It is important to Maher that the audience feels something, and thinks about their own experiences and trauma. She went on to say, “I believe almost all of us have memories in our childhood where our rights as children couldn’t be protected.” She hopes the images and the feelings of the film will stay with the people who see it and inspire them to reach out to those who have been abused, with the hope they will come out and break their silence, “because as long as we are silenced, the real change will not happen.” By bringing an awareness to her trauma, she hopes it will show other victims and survivors that they are not alone.