| 72 min
Selections and Awards
On August 31, 1995, tragedy struck the Guerrette family when Mona, a mother of two, died from breast cancer at age 42, leaving behind a husband and their daughters, Mylène and Marie-France. But she also left behind a stirring farewell message that would serve as a testament to her life.
How do you survive such a heartbreaking loss when you’re only a child? In putting her life and that of her family up on the big screen, Marie-France Guerrette shares her own private experience of grief with viewers. Interspersed throughout the story, grainy and emotionally charged video footage reconstructs the family mythology. The director points the camera at her loved ones and records heartfelt interviews that have a liberating effect. In the course of her filmmaking journey, the director also discovers an oppressive legacy that she must contend with: the risk of genetic cancer. Gently opening the door to the grieving process, this touching documentary about the filmmaker’s family is a call to action—and a possible roadmap back to the land of the living for anyone who’s ever experienced the devastation of losing a loved one.
“The bereaved must reconstruct, through words, the lives of those who are no longer with us.”
— Johanne de Montigny, Psychologist
When the Past Determines the Future
On August 31, 1995, tragedy struck the Guerrette family when Mona, a mother of two, died at age 42 of an aggressive form of breast cancer that had attacked her bones. She left behind an inconsolable husband and their young daughters, Mylène and Marie-France.
How do you grieve, how do you survive loss when you’re only a child, and nothing has ever prepared you for it? And as an adult, how do you make decisions about the future knowing that this disease could be passed on from mother to daughter?
In choosing to put her life and that of her family up on the big screen, director Marie-France Guerrette shares her private grieving process with viewers and ultimately re-appropriates her own personal story before our very eyes. From the cemetery—where the name on the gravestone is starting to fade—to the family garden, which needs to be completely redone, and from the cassette tape Mona recorded to the Super 8 home movies deftly woven into the story, this documentary revisits places from the past in a quest to put together the pieces of the person who has passed away—to create a composite image which, though worn by time, is illuminated by everyone’s love for the family member they’ve lost.
Moving Archival Footage
Accompanying the storyline like trail markers along the way, grainy and emotionally charged home movies reconstruct the family mythology at 18 frames per second: a look back at a kind of paradise lost, where everyone is young, smiling and healthy. The family appears united, carefree, gathered around the Christmas tree or a good meal, or watching the antics of Marie-France, who was already making home movies at that time and narrating what she was seeing. Mona looks radiant: her eyes, gentle and luminous; her smile, warm. Alive.
Pointing the camera at her loved ones, the director gives the floor to her father, her sister, her aunt, and her mother’s friends. Many of these raw, emotional interviews represent the family’s first attempt at talking about a drama that had unfolded more than 20 years ago. “Comment tu veux en parler avec quelqu’un qui a 10 ans? Il fallait continuer,” says Mylène, the younger sister. And so the absence was compounded by silence, which the documentary is now breaking—words that liberate. By giving their grief a voice, the family is opening the door to new possibilities. “Ça a débloqué quelque chose, comme un fardeau enfoui,” says the father, just before he decides to plant this brand-new garden on top of Mona’s flowerbeds, which had been neglected since her death…
In the course of her filmmaking journey, the director also discovered an oppressive legacy to contend with, lifting the veil on her family’s medical history: her maternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer the same week as her daughter Mona, and they both had a mastectomy on the same day. Their story was broadcast on TV. For the young woman, a new piece of information has just entered the equation: the risk of developing cancer rises sharply for women who carry the genetic mutations BRCA1 or BRCA2, which drove actress Angelina Jolie to have her breasts removed in 2013 as a precaution. Because she’s approaching the age at which her mother was diagnosed, Marie-France, 35, unmarried, no children—“Pourquoi avoir des enfants si c’est pour les abandonner?”—has a difficult choice to make: take the screening test or not? Is she at risk or isn’t she? Since our past affects our future, her decision can have grave consequences…
On August 31, the anniversary of Mona’s death, Marie-France decides to take the genetic test before our very eyes… because “savoir, c’est pouvoir.” Gently opening the door to the grieving process, this touching documentary serves as a call to action—and a possible roadmap back to the land of the living for anyone who’s experienced the devastation of losing a loved one.
Dad’s garden yields a good harvest.
On the cassette Mona had recorded, her voice goes quiet.
“Mom’s gonna go now.
I love you, Marie-France.
And be brave.”
As a storyteller, my favourite part about making a documentary is the process of discovery.
When you begin a new project, you’re armed with an idea and a bit of research. Eventually, if you’re lucky, a rich narrative unfolds, and that initial idea grows into a more inspired and thoughtful project than you’d initially anticipated.
My experience with this film was certainly like that. As a person who possesses an enormous degree of curiosity about the behaviour of others, I rediscovered why my own narrative mattered so much.
I felt very alone and empty when I started working on Unmothered, and I felt like I’d changed a lot by the time I’d finished it. The journey I took goes far beyond the 72 minutes you see on the screen. Everyone I met, interviewed, cried with, laughed with and held in my arms influenced the outcome of the film and the experience I lived.
At first, I wanted to study others, other girls and women who had lost their mothers. I didn’t want my own relationship with grief to influence the film too much, because I wanted it to be the story of others as much as mine. Having worked as a documentary film director for many years, I felt much more comfortable telling someone else’s story. When I realized that the true story of this film was deep inside of me, and only me, I thought, “Oh, crap!”—and I knew I had to jump in, because it was time, and my life depended on it.
When I finished the final cut of the film, I needed about two months to fully recover from the emotions I’d stirred up over a three-year period. Once that recovery took place, I woke up and started to re-enter the real world armed with everything I’d learned, everything my mother was trying to tell me. This learned knowledge is what I have now handed over to the audience. Although it’s my personal journey, I still believe that this is your story, too.
I hope this film sheds light on our ideas about experiencing grief at a young age. Children are seen as resilient little beings. A grieving child, however, is broken and is not equipped with the emotional tools to understand how to fix the brokenness. Not everything their dad, aunt, or teacher tells them is right… or right for their development. I believe that we need to evaluate the message we’ve internalized about death that might be holding us back from allowing grieving children to fully understand what is happening and how to cope and develop into healthy adults.
Once audiences see the film, my greatest hope is that when bereaved people decide to dive into their own pool of grief, they’ll do it because they feel like they need to, and they’ll feel inspired to dive in without limits or hesitation. I hope the film will help those who have been grieving for a long time to let go of the belief that they’re destined to be a little bit more miserable than others because their mom or dad died—as if they didn’t deserve lightness, wholeness, happiness.
I’ve learned this and so much more from my mother, someone who was actually dying when she spoke her last words with conviction, strength and bravery. She wanted us to keep growing but not to forget the memories she created for us. I believe that my mom knew me better than anyone else and she wanted to help me become my best self, even after she died. We did this together, we completed a film together, and that is love. That is courage.
With this film, my mom helped me re-write my own narrative. I was finally able to find my own voice through the experience of making the documentary. I had to lay my grief out on the table, say things out loud, meet people, write things down and read them back to myself, watch hundreds of hours of myself on a huge screen to find my voice. But most importantly, I needed my mom to hold my hand and help me find it.
Grief can take many forms. One path isn’t any less worthy or more healing than another. People are taken from our lives, but we still have our lives to live, and I hope that this film will start conversations and encourage other unmothered men and women to write the ending of their own stories.
Marie-France Guerrette began her career on television at age 14 as the co-host of a youth show on Radio-Canada. Since then, she’s been the director, senior producer or executive producer of several nationally broadcast programs and TV series. Her rich, extensive experience enables her to manage all aspects of a major production while making use of today’s digital and electronic technologies to provide viewers with engaging and rewarding experiences.
Marie-France first began to develop her approach to documentary storytelling through the NFB’s Tremplin competition, which is geared toward emerging filmmakers in Canadian francophone-minority communities. For this program, Marie-France wrote and directed Le chœur d’une culture (Together in Harmony) in 2008 and Mon père, le roi (My Father, the King) in 2010. These two short films brilliantly illustrate her ability to tell stories and draw out her characters with great sensitivity and creativity. Her goal as a filmmaker is to explore personal stories that reveal human vulnerability and encourage viewers to see the world around them in a different light. Her passion for the human experience and existential questions is at the heart of her artistic process, a process that’s fuelled by the desire to understand who we are and why we do what we do.
In 2015, Marie-France co-founded an independent production company, Productions Loft Inc., through which she’s produced and directed many documentaries that have been broadcast nation-wide and on web platforms. These include The Secret Life of Pianos, Les cordes de la victoire, the documentary series Cow-boy urbain and a series of short films entitled How to Be French en Alberta. Her first feature documentary, the NFB-produced Sans Maman (Unmothered), is based on her own personal experience of childhood bereavement. In this doc, Marie-France takes a lucid and sensitive look at loss, the search for a mother who was gone too soon, and the quest for one’s own identity.
Marie-France has received numerous awards, including at the Yorkton Film Festival in 2017 for The Secret Life of Pianos, which won the prestigious Golden Sheaf Award in the Documentary Arts & Culture category. She was also nominated for Best Director at the Alberta Film and Television Awards in 2017.
Marie-France has sat on the board of directors of the Regroupement artistique francophone de l’Alberta (RAFA) and on the board of directors of DOC Alberta, the local chapter of the Documentary Organization of Canada.
Photo : NFB
Denis McCready has been working in the Quebec film and television industry since 1996. He started off directing commercials for music channel MusiquePlus before becoming head of advertising for MusiquePlus, MusiMax, Super Écran and Canal Indigo. The early 2000s saw McCready working with independent production companies, where he gained experience as a production director, line producer, and producer of documentaries, documentary series, and dramas.
No stranger to technical and creative challenges, McCready has produced low-budget auteur documentaries on subjects as diverse as dance, music, the environment and child trafficking, as well as big-budget documentary series dealing with science, exploration, and war. He has overseen shoots both in Canada and abroad, many in locations that are hard to access (the Arctic, NASA, the Russian space program) or dangerous (the Atacama and Mojave deserts, the giant Cave of Crystals in Naica, Mexico). He oversaw the production of hundreds of special-effects sequences for the series Mars Rising and produced and wrote the serious game L’or du golfe for the ICI Radio-Canada website. McCready has delivered HD programs for major broadcasters, including National Geographic (US and international), Discovery (Canada, US, Latin America), History (Canada), ARTE (France/Germany), NHK (Japan), CBC, Radio-Canada, Canal D, and Télé-Québec. In addition, he’s worked on a number of official international co-productions (Canada-France, Canada-Mexico).
McCready won several awards as the producer of Chercher le courant (including the RIDM Audience Choice Award and Gémeaux Award for Best Documentary: Society) and Bas! Au-delà du Redlight (NFB Colin Low Award at DOXA). The films he’s produced have screened at many international festivals, including Hot Docs, Visions du réel, the International Festival of Films on Art, NXNE, DOXA, the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), and the Vancouver International Film Festival. He has also produced two documentaries directed by Ian Jaquier: L’or du golfe, with Kevin Parent, and Kanata: Aujourd’hui la colonisation, as well as the powerful documentary MTL Punk: La première vague, by Érik Cimon and Alain Cliche.
McCready is currently Executive Producer for the NFB’s Canadian Francophonie Studio. Previously, he worked on many NFB short and feature-length documentaries and interactive projects as a producer for the Documentary Studio and the Institutional Program.
After completing his studies at the National Conservatory of Paris, directing and performing in the theatre world in France, Dominic comes back to Canada to participate in a high-profile television show where he directs and shoots 18 short documentaries in 11 countries around the world. He then works as a director on various shows for French and English television networks, before starting Zazie Films, a film, television and new media production company with which he directs two feature films, Le Divan du Monde, and La Sacrée, as well as numerous interactive projects. He joins the NFB in 2013 as the executive producer of the Francophonie Studio, responsible for all French-language documentary and interactive productions in Canada, outside Quebec. Some of the projects on his slate include a documentary series in 360 ° VR, an online interactive piece about the psychology of gambling, and a documentary following African refugees as they move across Canada seeking decent jobs and a sense of belonging.
Written and Directed by
Johanne de Montigny
Karen Malkin – Lazarovitz
Piano and keyboard
Guido Del Fabro
Camera assistants and additonal images
Infographics and Titles
Alexandrine Torres de Figueiredo
Technical Audio Support
Alexandrine Torres de Figueiredo
Produced by the
National Film Board of Canada
In collabration with
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer and distributor of award-winning documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, working with talented creators across the country. The NFB is taking action to combat systemic racism and become a more open and diverse organization, while working to strengthen Indigenous-led production and gender equity in film and digital media. NFB productions have won more than 7,000 awards, including 12 Oscars. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.