The Latrous family, the citizens of the Ivory Coast
CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
Lotti Latrous had it all.
The Swiss-born Latrous was married to a mechanical engineer for Nestle, and enjoyed great wealth in a variety of exotic locales along with her three children, Selim, Sonia and Sarah. While her husband was assigned to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, Lotti's entire existence would change forever.
In the Ivory Coast, AIDS continues running rampant and it is estimated that by 2010 50% of the nation's 14 million citizens will have contracted HIV. While she herself was afforded the best the Ivory Coast had to offer, Lotti's eyes were opened to those around her who were suffering, stigmatized, untreated and alone.
Lotti first began volunteering at the Mother Theresa Hospital, and she and her husband eventually began "Le Centre Espoir," the Center of Hope. in the smaller city of Adjouffou.
When her husband, Aziz, was sent by Nestle to his next locale in Egypt, Lotti faced a difficult choice. Would she simply abandon her work in Adjouffou to continue living her privileged existence or would she give up everything to continue doing what she felt called to do?
The answer is rather obvious. It is doubtful that a filmmaker would dedicate a documentary to a woman who simply abandoned the sick and dying for a life of privilege. Lotti did what many would consider admirable while still others would consider it reprehensible...she left not only the life of leisure, but she left her husband and three children so that she could continue caring for the sick and dying in the Ivory Coast.
Despite outward appearances, director Stephan Anspichler goes to great lengths to paint Latrous as a woman who dearly loved her family while simultaneously feeling unable to leave behind the Center of Hope. In the very literal sense, her family was not abandoned. Lotti and Aziz remain married and she remains involved, albeit in lesser ways, in their lives.
The beauty and challenge that lies within "Egoiste" lies in the moral dilemma that faces Latrous on a daily basis. Even as she cares tirelessly for the hopeless and abandoned in Adjouffou, it is impossible to completely erase the notion that while she cares for those who are largely anonymous in her life she has, at least on a certain level, done the very same thing as her patients' families by abandoning her own family.
Of course, Anspichler includes the obligatory family interviews in which they deny abandonment. Yet words cannot mask what their voices are saying, especially her children, as they use words and language strangely devoid of love, affection or endearment when they speak of their mother. They are seemingly wonderful, well-adjusted children who are capable of recognizing the wondrous deeds of this woman who birthed them. Yet, one can't help but wonder if she truly continues to be "mother" to them.
When Sarah, the youngest of the Latrous children, acknowledges admiration for the role her mother has played in the lives of hundreds of persons living and dying with AIDS in the Ivory Coast, one almost hears the silent whisper that follows "if only she'd had a bigger role in the lives of her own three children."
While the film's moral dilemmas are challenging, it is not challenging to see the vitality of Latrous's work as she tends day and night to men, women and children at Center of Hope. The Center is said to offer approximately 12 HIV tests daily, and approximately 50% of those tests come back positive. Likewise, each day the Center of Hope receives 10-12 outcalls in which families are calling, typically too late, for the Center of Hope to treat their loved ones. Often times, these loved ones are found lying in their own feces, uncared for and pariahs in a community in which even the larger hospitals will not treat them.
Anspichler's cinematography is dark, imprisoning and almost unfathomably depressing. This atmosphere is as much the result of limitations placed upon Anspichler's film by the government of the Ivory Coast as it is the filmmaker's design. While Anspichler did receive a permit to film, he was under strict orders to film only those places directly related to the work of the Center of Hope. Thus, a large amount of "Egoiste" is filmed inside Center of Hope and inside the sparsely furnished and barely lit homes of the Center's patients.
While it is easy to admire and deeply respect the work of Latrous as she so openly embraces the men, women and children she serves, there are times that Anspichler takes "Egoiste" a tad too far into hero worship by splicing scenes together using Latrous's quotes and including far too many dimly lit side shots of Latrous's face. It feels as if Anspichler is trying too hard to draw a Mother Theresa comparison and, while Latrous's work is incredibly admirable, it is a huge leap in reaching out for sainthood.
While Mother Theresa undoubtedly publicized her work, for example, one can't help but think she'd have cringed at the thought of cameras so intimately invading the dying moments of her patients, a last conversation between father and son or a woman being told that her blind sibling has contracted HIV. These moments, sacred moments deserving of dignity, are instead shot in close-up seemingly without a blink. It is beautiful and powerful and wonderful that Latrous has a gift for companioning the lonely through their dying moments, but it feels contradictory that a woman so dedicated to dignity would choose to allow cameras to film such deeply intimate moments.
Latrous, who was named "Swiss Woman of the Year" in 2004, offers so many wonderful lessons for so many of us in the world who are gifted with so much privilege. "Egoiste" is a powerful testimony of her choice to turn away from her life of privilege and choose to make a difference in the world.
Yet, "Egoiste" feels incomplete. Towards the end of the film, both Sarah and Lotti acknowledge that there are thoughts and feelings that they simply will not share on film. It is, perhaps, these thoughts and feelings that would reveal the greatest truths about the simultaneously inspirational and challenging story of Lotti Latrous, a woman who, while doing so much to help the citizens of the Ivory Coast, at times seems to be doing even more to help herself.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic