Delphine’s Prayers (2021) Open City Documentary Festival Review

Delphine’s Prayers/Les prières de Delphine (2021)
Director: Rosine Mbakam

The latest feature documentary from Belgium-based Cameroonian filmmaker Rosine Mbakam, a documentarian well regarded for spotlighting the experiences of African migrant women, is an extended interview with Delphine, a 30 year-old fellow Cameroonian immigrant to Belgium with a captivating if harrowing life story to tell.

While often looking directly into the camera, Delphine discusses how she didn’t always want to talk about her past, where she came from and what she has been through, but that she came to realise how important it could be to be open about this, particularly to give people some much-needed perspective on their own lives and experiences.

Delphine’s Prayers essentially acts as Delphine’s memoir (she even refers to it in the interview as her “journal”), a record of a life lived, good and bad. Autobiographical/memoir documentaries (such as Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès) are far less common than biographical documentaries produced after the usually famous subjects have died (such as Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy), so giving a platform to a woman young enough to still have many stories to tell is refreshingly immediate.

Delphine’s many traumatic struggles include her mother dying when she was five, a childhood of hunger and poverty, and her and her sisters being forced to prostitute themselves to much older men to have enough money for food. She also looked after her sister’s child who was suffering with malaria for a time, where Delphine was again forced to sell herself to pay for her niece to be treated in hospital. Check your heart is still functioning if you don’t get choked up at “Auntie De, everything will be fine now”.

She recounts a brutal argument with her sisters over a family tragedy and how she ended up marrying a Belgian man and moving away to escape her life in Cameroon, but she clearly has the most complex family relationship with her estranged father, the man whose lifestyle and insensitivity made her already harsh early life even worse. Delphine was raped as a pre-teen by a local boy on the way back from seeing her sister in hospital, and her dad blamed and humiliated her for this when she decided to confide in him (looking back on this time in her life, Delphine asks incredulously, “Is that my dad I’m talking to?”). It’s the only time in the documentary Delphine appears to shut off and change the subject, and when Mbakam tries to get to the heart of their issues, she responds with; “He lived like a man without children… I can’t make myself hate him”.

There are cutaways to the weather outside, family photos, Delphine doing her makeup or getting up to answer the door. It’s clear that Delphine is dictating the interview breaks, to an extent controlling the rhythm of her own story. These mundane moments give us a much-needed breather as it would be far too intense and distressing not only for Delphine but for each of us to experience this in one go.

She opens the second interview session laughing “Let’s get down to business”. She talks about the difficulty of getting a visa to travel to Belgium, even married to a white man from Brussels. During her interview she is asked to pledge to stay and work in the country and not want to return if things don’t work out. She bemusedly responds to the official at the Belgian Embassy in Cameroon, “If you leave poverty and go towards wealth, you stay there”. Her application was duly rejected so she emphasised her pregnancy at her second interview and eventually made it to Belgium with her new husband.

Her marriage was not one of love, but a sacrifice for the sake of the quality of life her children could have. The man she loved, a French man she met in Cameroon who waded through floodwater and stayed in her father’s shack home to be with her, returned after four years to find she was already married and pregnant to the man she was about to start her new life abroad with. Her unseen husband comes across as a patronising, domineering man from what Delphine tells us: “Why does he want me to abandon my culture and join his? You can’t just wipe out years of personal experience”.

The film’s final stretch is built around a long scene in which Delphine is making a heartbreaking plea to God for work and security for her and her children. After a time Mbakam’s camera seems to pan away and give Delphine her space when she is at her most emotionally and spiritually vulnerable.

Rosine Mbakam, who we see in the documentary’s final sequence, only met Delphine by chance, as although they are a similar age they were each of a completely different social class back in Cameroon and so would never have come across each other had they stayed there. As expats in Belgium, they were both marked out as different from the native Europeans and so shared a common cultural identity in a strange country even if their lived experiences couldn’t have been more contrasting. Delphine’s Prayers is often a difficult watch, but it is a captivating, vital record of a life of hardship held together by Mbakam’s unfussy, sensitive direction and its subject’s charisma, disarming honesty and equal parts strength and vulnerability.


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