Intimate documentary focusing on the titular matriarch of the women’s powder room at Mexico City’s Barba Azul Cabaret

La Mami

Source: IDFA

‘La Mami’

Dir. Laura Herrero Garvin. Mexico-Spain. 2019. 80mins

La Mami opens the door to the bustling and fascinating environment of the women’s toilet and powder room at the long-standing Mexico City cabaret and dance hall Barba Azul (Bluebeard). This is the kingdom of Mami, the part-cleaner, part-confidante, no-nonsense guardian of the space where the ficheras — women who dance, drink and flirt with clientele in return for cash — get ready for the night. Having won the Ambulante Award at 2018 Impulso Morelia, which provides post-production funds to documentary filmmakers, Laura Herrero Garvin’s immersive and eye-opening film now competes in IDFA’s feature competition, where its strong female focus should see it get noticed.

Herrero Garvin has evidently built a strong level of trust with all involved

It’s a while before we’re introduced to the heat and energy of the club itself, as Herrero Garvin begins her film where the women also start their evening — in Mami’s realm. In her zip-up cardigan, elderly Mami, who we learn held just about every job in the dance hall business during her younger years, is a stark contrast amongst the girls in their slinky outfits, busy applying make-up like warpaint for the battle ahead. Chief among them is new recruit Carmen who, like all those who work here, takes on a nom de guerre, Priscilla. She needs the cash for, as Mami puts it, “a noble cause”; namely putting her 22-year-old son through cancer treatment. 

Although Priscilla’s story is the most prominent, this sense of women taking on this thankless and tiring role in order to look after their families runs throughout La Mami. It also makes clear that, while one or two might decide to give some of the men rather more than a dance, most simply stay on the dancefloor. Men are very much a secondary consideration of the film; Mami acerbically notes they are “good for nothing and to give money”. 

When the camera finally follows Priscilla down into the club itself, with its live salsa band and hot colours, it’s clear that this is a serious business. As she is whisked around the floor, the look on her face is closer to grim determination than joy. Back in the ladies’ room, the women swap war stories and offer tips to Priscilla on how to remove the smell of alcohol before her early morning doctor’s appointment with her son. 

The relationship between Mami and Priscilla gives an emotional hook to the film, which gradually reveals details about their lives, while the comings and goings of the rest of the crew offer insight into their work. Herrero Garvin has evidently built a strong level of trust with all involved; her camera seems to go unnoticed in the powder room, where Mami carefully measures out tissue paper, urges patrons to “tip as you wish” and rules over the bucket of water used to flush the toilet with a rod of iron.

Often, Mami is a silent presence glimpsed in the back or at the edge of shot, observing everything even if she isn’t responding. In one lovely moment, she dozes at the far side of the frame while Priscilla, her back to her, regales her with a tale from her evening. Herrero Garvin also finds contrast between the heat of the night when the women are working and the cold light of the morning after floors are swilled and naked carved figurines of women are polished to within an inch of their lives.

Production companies: Cacerola Films, Gadea Films

International sales: Dogwoof

Producers: Laura Imperiale, Patricia Franquesa, Laia Zanon

Cinematography:  Laura Herrero Garvin

Editing: Lorenzo Mora Salazar, Ana Pfaff

Music: Josué Vergara