“The old man I slept with for 15,000 francs…it gives me goosebumps” 30-year-old Delphine confesses in one scene. She is telling the story of how she sold her body as a teenager to pay for hospital treatment for her niece who was sick with malaria. Despite Delphine’s efforts, her young niece passed away before Delphine could take her to the hospital – leading Delphine’s entire family to blame her for the death. This is a short snippet of one of many interviews by Delphine compiled together in Rosine Mbakam’s Delphine’s Prayers – a documentary that unfolds the life story of Cameroon-born Delphine and her experiences growing up in poverty and migrating to Belgium. Showing in this year’s Open City Documentary Festival, Delphine’s Prayers is a harrowing and deeply empathetic account of womanhood, suffering, and diaspora.
Image © Icarus Films
“Sit down or I won’t be able to relax” instructs Delphine to Mbakam. They chatter quickly about editing and what they’ll be able to edit out and Delphine begins, diving in headfirst talking about how her mother died when she was just five years old. She then explains how she started sex work at the age of 13 after being raped, and impregnated, by a local boy. Cigarette dangling between her fingers, Delphine talks about how her father had blamed her for her own assault. The same father who had refused to pay for his other daughter’s baby’s hospital bills as it was just another mouth to feed. Mbakam listens intently off-screen with ‘hmms’ and the occasional prompting question but she largely leaves Delphine to tell her story herself. Mbakam lets Delphine ramble, go on tangents, repeat herself, and even change her own perspective at times (throughout the documentary Delphine shows a ferocious disappointment in her father and a wish for God to punish him then towards the end she comments how she finds it impossible to hate him).
All filmed inside Delphine’s cramped and cluttered apartment in Belgium, we occasionally get glimpses of rain-splattered windows and family photos on the walls but the vast majority of the film is focused on Delphine sitting alone on a single bed. Mbakam’s presence never feels intrusive or awkward. She does not pretend that she is not there (at one point she actively engages Delphine in the production process by getting her to help white balance the camera with a sheet of paper) but she always respects Delphine’s decision to cut early or finish the sequence for the day – “I have nothing to add to your journal today” Delphine declares in one particularly heavy sequence.
Image © Icarus Films
Delphine continues discussing her life story, talking about her marriage to her husband – a European man who she met in Cameroon and then moved to Belgium with. Mbakam asks if it was love at first sight, Delphine replies with a sombre remark about their loveless union – a marriage full of resentment and loathing. Delphine mentions another man who she loved; the one who got away. A man who bought her any gift she wanted and would always shower her with affection. He left Cameroon for four years and when he came back for Delphine she was already married and pregnant. Delphine talks about the incident with a bitter heartbreak; contemplating just how different her life would have been if she had waited for this man. This tension later unfurls in a scene where Delphine starts to break down in tears and pray to God – just as the title of the film suggests. Delphine weeps, “God I’m not bad, I beg” she pleads “If I’d have known I wouldn’t have made these choices”. This scene goes on, lasting for somewhere between five and ten minutes as the camera hovers. Then, the front door goes. We hear the voices of children and a male voice (presumably her husband). Delphine quickly quietens, she wipes her tears and composes herself as if nothing had ever happened. The undeniable respect Mbakam has for Delphine is what allows Delphine to open up so honestly and frankly about her life in a way she cannot to others. In a world where Delphine has been ignored, quietened, and exploited – Mbakam’s kindness gives Delphine an important voice.
Image © Icarus Film
Mbakam is a brilliant example of a collaborative documentary filmmaker; always responding and shifting to Delphine’s input and requests to articulate a truthful-as-possible depiction of her life story. Unflinching and raw while simultaneously sensitive and compassionate, Delphine’s Prayers is an important and reverent portrayal of women’s suffering and fortitude.
Written by Abi Aherne
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