Currently screening at the Royal Cinema in Toronto since last Friday is Christy Garland’s documentary The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, which revolves around a family from Georgetown, Guyana in South America. The family’s matriarch, 75-year old Mary, is an alcoholic in denial. She’s also a talented poet who once set out to write a book of poems.
The documentary takes its time to reveal what has caused Mary to become dependent on alcohol. One can assume is perhaps out of boredom, or because of her forgone dream of becoming a published author. After all, Mary has a loving family, which includes three other daughters and several grandchildren. Why couldn’t she find peace and joy in her family? Why is she so restless? Why does she fear being alone at night?
Bastard also centers around Mary’s son Muscle, who is most likely in his late 30’s or early 40’s. We watch Muscle raise cocks for fighting and birds for singing competitions. The documentary’s “bastard” title refers to Muscle’s winner songbird. Muscle, who aims to reach a stable, secure economic middle class in this tight-nit Caribbean community, keeps a very close eye on his mother. He fears for her safety, especially since she has fallen and hurt herself before on the streets, as she goes on daily walks and begs for money to buy alcohol.
Muscle makes concessions with his mother to keep her inside their compound and safe. He rations her alcohol in order to prevent her from venturing outside. He begins to keep her locked in her room for her own good. But he’s hardly cruel with his mother. There are several tender sequences of Muscle complementing Mary to his friends about her writing talents; and are other several scenes of family members enjoying a more upbeat, affectionate Mary.
Once Mary begins recounting her traumatic experiences, dispersed in different confessional scenes with the camera, the documentary becomes genuinely affecting. You begin seeing Mary through different eyes. You ponder upon the resilience of this elder’s spirit. These sequences are compelling and subtly powerful. She’s been through abuse at the hands of her late husband, who also abused her children.
Without giving much away, there is much more pain to her story. However, the documentary’s nuanced and humane direction prevents the film going into over the top sentimentality or aiming to shock just for the sake of. There is also a much-needed sense of hope and redemption for this family through Muscle’s testimony. He’s determined to succeed and provide for his family, but most importantly, to break the cycle of abuse.
Christy Garlands’ direction augurs a genuine and compassionate must-see portrait of alcoholism, loving familial ties, trauma, breaking the abuse cycle, and ultimately of endurance and hope.