Rosine Mbakam’s intimate yet challenging Delphine’s Prayers is the most intense therapy session you can imagine. An emotional whirlwind of a documentary that has you riveted with its subject’s life.
Delphine’s Prayers is a portrait of Delphine, a Cameroonian woman who had lost her mother by 13, abandoned by her father, leaving her to be raped. First turning to sex work to support herself, Delphine later married a Belgian man more than three times her age in the hope of finding a better life in Europe for herself and her daughter. Seven years after her marriage, the European dream has dissipated, and her situation has worsened.
There is nothing at all flashy or stylish about Rosine Mbakam’s Delphine’s Prayers, but what is there in the fullest form possible is honesty. Be it from the minimalist and simple direction and camerawork to our subject. The cuts are hard and purposeful as mere seconds between thought threads are provided. Only when she feels we need a few extra seconds does the camera hold, either towards the sky or on Delphine herself as she contemplates or watches a show. Such simple techniques from the cinematographer trained filmmaker allows us to get the perfect vision of the point that she is trying to get across. Yet, everything inside her lens is as authentic as they come.
Mbakam is the video journal for Delphine, or at least that is what she is told she is to detail her life experiences and troubles. Yet it almost comes across more like a therapy session as she pours her soul into her “journal”, at times talking with tears in her eyes. Telling humorous stories or when she veers off into angry monologues about those who lead her down the life she never wanted or with her frustrations with being forced to be who her ex-husband wanted her to be. The wide range of emotions has the viewer on the edge of their seat; not only do we not know where her life story in this “session” is going to go, but we have even less of a clue about her emotions she describes them.
This “interview or journal” is one that you never emotionally see coming. It immediately takes your breath away as Delphine waste’s little time letting us know the horrific time she had as a child. You are waiting to break away at all times to get a breather as Delphine spills herself to us. It is too intense, too harrowing, yet Mbakam keeps her camera steady and focused for longer than you would want. Then only when she thinks we have stewed enough she breaks away, but only ever for a brief moment.
An example of this is after a rather intense confession, a doorbell rings, and suddenly we come up for air. Delphine’s children come home from school, and as the camera follows her out of the room, we think we will see her interaction with them. To get some comfort after what she has just confessed to us, to see her enjoy something. Instead, the camera roams back to the bed and sits there as we overhear conversations from her mic. Afterwards, Delphine is doing her makeup, a bit of light is presented to the audience, the very first one in over 26 minutes of runtime
This gives us that chance to collect our thoughts and our feelings and devastation for what this woman has had to go through. Then immediately, she begins to talk about her time as a prostitute. It is that jarring and brutally honest type of piece as not long afterwards; Delphine reminisces about her attempts at getting a visa. This moment is rife with humour there, and happily, these moments of levity in Delphine’s Prayers gives us another glance, another angle as to the person that Delphine is. These are usually brought in during the “break” segments that Mbakam has interspersed throughout the film. They work wonderfully, though, and as much as we need them due to the heavy narrative, it reinforces how Delphine is with her friends when not talking about her complicated past.
This is even though we know that for such a young woman at only 30 years old, she has gone through more than most will in multiple lifetimes. She was even thinking about when she goes back to Cameroon and how people treat her—expecting her to be rich with money just because she lives in Europe. But as we know, life is never that simple, and Delphine has even to find things in her own home to sell, to support her younger brother. She shows that no matter what happens in her life, her family, even thousands of miles away, always takes precedent.
In Delphine’s Prayers, we get a glimpse into a world that many never hear about; her story projects a world that few will experience. Even fellow Cameroonian Mbakam would not have experienced what Delphine has, as she narrates at the end that two women from vastly different backgrounds found each other in Brussell’s and formed a firm friendship thousands of miles from home. We can never comprehend what Delphine has and is going through as she tries to figure out how to support her family. What we do have is a marvellous and complicated character study that leaves you in a contemplative state. She is a brave person and all the more courageous for allowing her story to be shared.
Delphine’s Prayers is available to UK audiences until Monday 7th June during the Sheffield Doc Festival here for £5.
To catch more of our reviews throughout Sheff Doc Fest 2021, Have a look below:
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