Umama is the story of a woman whose job it is to look after children who aren’t her own, but whose choice it is to love them like they are. Sibongile (played by Connie Chiume) is a domestic worker who missed much of her own son’s childhood while caring for her employer’s children. Based on a true story, Sibongile is the fictionalization of director Talia Smith’s own “umama” growing up, a woman whom she considers her second mother.
Sibongile’s son, Thabiso (played by Malibongwe Mdwaba), is an academically inclined teenager. Although he understands that his mother works away to support him and his schooling, he is upset by her absence. This is a story familiar to Mdwaba, and many of the other actors on set.
“Playing this role meant I was asked to revisit a time in my personal life,” says Mdwaba. “In the process I got a chance to heal from having a parent figure missing. I’m thankful.”
On top of being talented actors, this is a story these artists have lived. It is a common and genuine South African experience, and the actors portraying it are simply and fully telling the truth.
An accomplished actress herself, Connie Chiume initially took on the film to help grow young talent and foster South African artists, including director Talia Smith. “I read the script. It was so touching that I thought ‘I really must tell the story.’ I was not thinking about an award, I was thinking about the story and the craft.”
Had this true story been fictionalized by someone who hadn’t lived it, the character of Bridgette (Sibongile’s employer and the fictional counterpart to Smith’s own mother, played by Shelley Meskin) might have been wrongly portrayed as an antagonist. Instead, she’s simply a mother who also loves her children, and shows care for Sibongile’s son as well. In Umama, no woman is pitted against another; they are each working with love.
“I think what’s so beautiful, what I’ve learned from the crew is that this is what happens when everyone is telling the same story.” says Sabelo Ndumo, who plays Kathalo – a troubled teen whose jealousy causes friction with Thabiso.
And sharing these stories gives them power. “What you do when you mirror someone else’s reality, what you are saying is ‘We see you, you matter.’ In that way,” says Mdwaba, “they may heal from whatever it is they have gone through.”
The story of Umama might be homegrown, but its message is universal. “A South African artist or actor, that seems so far-fetched. You don’t think that the Academy would recognize us… we are here, we are seen, we have stories to tell. And they are saying yes, we see you” says Ndumo.
Umama is about the resilience of women, the depth of mothers’ love, and the sacrifices parents make. It shows the congruence of two different cultures co-caring – a theme reflected in the teamwork of the split South African and American crew creating together from across an ocean.