Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
The director of a moving new documentary, Mama Agatha, talks about immigration, identity, and hope.
The headlines these days are full of dark stories about immigration: refugees lost in the waters of the Mediterranean, people fleeing war and poverty who end up stranded in crowded camps for years, newcomers targeted by demagogues seeking to whip up nativist anxiety and votes.
The short and moving little documentary Mama Agatha tells a different kind of story. It’s about a 59-year-old Ghanaian woman living in cycle-friendly Amsterdam. An outgoing and vibrant woman known around the city’s Southeast neighborhood as a “community mother,” she has for the past five years taught other immigrant women how to ride bikes in a methodical 12-week course. She and her volunteer colleagues guide them from wobbly beginnings in a local gym to steady competence on local streets.
In sharing that fundamental skill, so much a part of the Dutch identity, Mama Agatha connects to women from around the world, helping them to gain a new kind of freedom within their adopted society. The director of the film, Fadi Hindash, is a filmmaker of Palestinian origin who lives in the Netherlands. By email, he answered a few questions about the movie, which is making the festival circuit now.
How did you meet Mama Agatha?
Generally, I like to let the subject of the film find me instead, which is not difficult, since all my films are deeply personal. Even before I moved to the Netherlands and experienced the life of an immigrant in Europe, I grew up in Dubai, where my family and myself were guest workers, so the migrant experience is something that is deeply rooted in me.
Last year, I was having coffee on a terrace with a friend and saw a group of veiled Moroccan women learning how to cycle in a park in Amsterdam West. The image of grown women learning a new skill like cycling was instantly heartwarming and funny, and it said so much about integration, something I was—and still am—going through myself.
So I began researching the subject by looking for cycling courses for migrant women in Amsterdam. The initial plan was to make a film about the students themselves, but when I met Mama Agatha, the film changed focus. She's a woman with a larger-than-life personality and a story to tell.
Do you think learning how to ride a bike can be a way of bridging cultural differences?
Of course, and so is film, which is why this is a perfect combination.
Do you think learning how to ride a bike is especially important for women?
Before making Mama Agatha, I didn't realize how much cycling meant to people, especially women, in need of freedom and independence. I learned that the physical mobility cycling provides actually comes with social mobility and personal freedom, not to mention the childlike joy it brings to the kind of women that are in my film.
How does your film reflect the ongoing tension over immigration in Europe?
After the first screening of Mama Agatha at the Leiden Short Film Experience, a Dutch Caucasian man came up to me. His eyes were welling up as he spoke about how nice it was for him to see a film dealing with migration from a positive angle. Normally, most stories about immigration tend to focus on the suffering, which I believe is fair since that is a reality, but my intention was to make a film about someone who was able to turn their suffering and loss into something positive. I believe hope is very important because without it, what is the point of living, whether you are a migrant or not.