The Taste of Mango
Dir. Chloe Abrahams, U.K./U.S., no distributor
The Taste of Mango plays Friday, March 17 at Museum of the Moving Image’s 2023 First Look festival.
By design, Chloe Abrahams’s The Taste of Mango is difficult to put into words. A logline would describe it as a documentary about Abrahams’s relationship with her mother, Rozana, and grandmother, Jean; the suppressed violence that led to Rozana and Jean’s estrangement; and Abrahams’s coming of age, when she started to relate to her mother as more of a person than a parent. To burrow into all of this, Abrahams frequently shifts aesthetic registers, from stylized vignettes to handheld observation, introspective narration to candid conversation, the heightened past to the quotidian present. Abrahams has explained that she wanted to evoke sense-memory, as if inviting the viewer into her own state of mind—and cinema, affective and textural, is uniquely suited to the nuances of these generational ties.
We meet Rozana in a gauzy, ethereal close-up, fading in from white like a dream. In voiceover, Abrahams reflects on the link she’s internalized between Rozana and the “taste of mango”; it jolts her back to the specter of her lineage, since Rozana ate the fruit while pregnant with her, as did Jean while expecting Rozana. Then, Abrahams invites us into her family history through Rozana’s memories. As if settling into an early-morning chat, Abrahams sits on the edge of her mother’s bed and trains her camcorder on Rozana, resting while cradling a mug. She speaks directly into the lens as she recollects her upbringing in Sri Lanka, where her father passed away when she was just a baby, and her eventual move to England, where she raised Abrahams and her younger sister. It’s remarkable, at first, how relaxed Rozana seems on camera. Enlarging their bond to cinematic proportions is a delicate line to walk, a challenge to impart all these subtleties; it would seem impossible to beam a distant audience into their quiet moments together.
Abrahams questions the possibility of doing so, too. As she makes micro-adjustments to her framing in an early fragment of the film, she captures Rozana smiling self-consciously as she waits, her eyes darting toward and away from the lens. Abrahams isn’t simplistically identifying documentary-as-artifice here—her aim is gentler and more expansive. Each tonal change makes us reconsider the film from multiple perspectives, disrupting any groove into which the film settles, and making us question the trancelike pull of some of its imagery. As Rozana flips through photo albums from her adolescence, Abrahams’s camcorder lingers on snapshots that have been ripped in half, nostalgic images haunted by unexplained ruptures.
The Taste of Mango is Abrahams’s first feature, and it has some antecedents in her earlier shorts, notably Mama (2019), in which she and her sister perform a dialogue written in the voice of their mother and aunt. As they rehearse the scene, they slip in and out of character to speculate on fragments of this shared past that seem vague, or from which they’ve deliberately been sheltered. Performance, here, lets the sisters broaden their own limited perspectives; they build a version of their relatives’ lives from before they were born, through which they try to understand these women as emotional equals, rather than elders or protectors.
In The Taste of Mango, Abrahams grapples with the gaps in her family history much more directly. These photos were torn in an attempt to erase the violent sexual abuse Rozana suffered at the hands of her stepfather, which led to her leaving Sri Lanka and straining her relationship with Jean, who, desiring to keep up appearances, stayed married. It’s a past that Abrahams is careful not to verbalize prematurely, or too didactically, and her editing choices reflect this; this history is present like an undercurrent until it is gradually verbalized. At a few points, an in-medias-res voiceover from Rozana accompanies abstract, picturesque images—of bodies of water at night, or of the road rushing by underneath a car. It becomes clear she is recalling assaults from her childhood, and these sequences are simulating the experience of dissociation.
There’s more to Rozana’s present than this past; she’s newly, happily engaged and preparing for her wedding. She notes straightforwardly that coming to England meant starting her family and having children, and she might not have left home if things had happened differently. That’s an impossible thing for a daughter to make peace with. The love that Abrahams and Rozana have for each other is obvious—one montage compiles everyday, affectionate shots of the two of them celebrating birthdays; then curled up on a couch with the camcorder; then outdoors, Rozana helping her daughter apply sunscreen to the back of her neck. But there’s a sense that these moments of care provide an insufficient shield against the world. (Late in the film, Abrahams admits wanting a child of her own, but worrying that “pouring all of her love” into a child still wouldn’t be enough to protect them.)
At a key point, Jean, disarmingly petite in her interviews, travels to London to spend the holidays with Abrahams and Rozana. Abrahams frames a cozy image of the three of them spending time together, singing along to Elvis in kitschy pajamas, but in voiceover admits that tensions broke out: “I never understood why you’d [Rozana] never say anything; to me it seemed like this alien had landed in our home and we were going about life as normal.” Amidst this deepening inquiry into the family’s complicated past, Abrahams articulates these tensions by surfacing dissonance: this picture-perfect visual conceals their emotional world. The question of whether Jean might break with Rozana’s stepfather and move to the UK—even now, 40 years on—becomes urgent.
Instead of trying to fully inhabit Rozana’s viewpoint—which might mean trying to fill in these gaps too literally—Abrahams uses the limitations of her own perspective to relate to her. Often, Abrahams reminds us that she’s filming her mother, an outsider looking in; her camcorder is as jerky as a GoPro, every motion a reminder of her intervention. At one point, Abrahams hurries down the stairs of her house, her camcorder frame blurring and flailing, until she halts and zooms in on the window to the back garden—framing Rozana working on her laptop in solitude. Something similar happens in Joanna Hogg’s second Souvenir film, when Hogg’s stand-in sees her mother lost in thought from a distance: in both the younger women pause for a moment, as though reflecting from afar on their mothers’ autonomy and vulnerability—not weak, just human.
There are also evocations of Kirsten Johnson and Agnès Varda in Abrahams’s collage-like approach—especially the latter when Abrahams frames herself in a mirror, holding a black-and-white image of her grandfather’s face over half of her own. She playfully zooms in on the overlap, recalling when she was a child and she tried to talk to photos of her long-departed ancestor. Of course, there’s a trace of Chantal Akerman in these daughter-to-mother voiceovers, in the generational gaps. All of these comparisons aren’t meant to reduce the work to influences, but to align this film with a group of artists always searching, wrestling with the paradoxes of the art form as a route to understanding.
Toward the end, as Abrahams films her mother blow-drying her hair, Rozana admits she’s grateful for her daughter’s drive to question seemingly fixed aspects of the world. The Taste of Mango turns that tendency into its source of propulsion: it’s personal filmmaking as familial searching, a way to detach the assumptions of the past from the contingencies of the future. And, like an evolving thought process, it takes the experience of editing this film for Abrahams to fully open up to her mother—again, in voiceover, accompanying an ordinary visual of Rozana getting ready for her day. These small moments contain the weight of everything that came before, and instead of simplifying that complexity, The Taste of Mango finds a path forward by facing all of these layers.