Every Nose Wiped, Every Shoelace Tied

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At Hot Docs 2021, Selome Hailu speaks to Through the Night director Loira Limbal about the value of daycare decor, public broadcasting, and Mother’s Day.

I just want support and ease and rest and dignity for the women in my community. And that’s not achievable in just one day.” —Loira Limbal.

Through the Night is a verité portrait of Dee’s Tot’s, a daycare in New Rochelle, New York. Run by Deloris “Nunu” Hogan and her husband Patrick, or “Pop Pop,” the daycare stays open for 24 hours a day with the goal of being there for parents with nowhere else to go.

Dominican-American and Bronx-bred director Loira Limbal first learned about Dee’s Tots from a Facebook group for parents in her area. Limbal, who was raised by a single mother and is now a sole parent herself, immediately understood what a precious resource a place like Dee’s could be for low-income parents in New York. Magnetized by the concept and community of the daycare, she decided that she had to make a film about it, but then heard from someone who had interviewed them that the Hogans were private and protective of their work. It didn’t sound like they’d be open to the project. Limbal moved on.

Two years came to pass, and she still hadn’t stopped thinking about Nunu. So she took a shot in the dark. After speaking on the phone, Nunu invited Limbal for a meeting at the daycare, which is also the Hogans’ home. The two connected over their shared experiences as Black New York mothers, and Nunu agreed to allow Limbal to start the project.

Through the Night took four years to make. Neither Limbal nor her primary collaborator, editor Malika Zouhali-Worrall, could work on the project full-time, both having jobs and children to tend to. They filmed when they could and edited as they went along. But after receiving major funding from private non-profit ITVS, they had the support they needed to fully commit to the finishing touches: “Just trying to get it to find the right rhythm for the story, for the characters, for the universe. It's a bit of an ephemeral thing, you know? We knew when it wasn't working. And then we were done when we felt like it finally clicked.”

In just 76 minutes, the film illuminates the lives of the Hogans, the parents who depend on them, and the children they care for. When it comes to child care, there’s no shortage of logistics, and the film takes stock of the doctor’s appointments Nunu struggles to make time for and the job interviews different parents pin their hopes on. Still, this is not a documentary about facts and figures. While holding strong that capitalism and racism are the reasons the families depicted struggle so deeply, Through the Night gets to the heart of it all, and honors the care these workers, parents, and children give each other. 

“Tiny and epic,” writes Eduardo of the film on Letterboxd. Dori agrees: “There is so much love in this (and I cannot look at love without weeping).” So grab a few tissues before you tuck into this film, which was a highlight of Hot Docs, and has its U.S. broadcast on PBS on May 10, the day after Mother’s Day. 

What do you remember about when you finally got to meet Nunu? What did you two see in each other? How did she know to trust you?

Loira Limbal: Walking in, I was super nervous. I had worked this up in my head. At the time that I met her, I’d been thinking about her for over two years. And I remember, we sat down in one of the two rooms of the daycare space, which is the front of her house. There were kids around. It was a Saturday, so it wasn’t as busy as the weekdays are, but it was [still] pretty busy. But it still felt like she was doing what she needed to do [with the kids] and that I had her full attention at the same time. 

We sat there and spoke for about two hours. The conversation just really flowed. I shared a lot about my own background, my upbringing, my mother, my current configuration, what I was doing with my own kids, and there was a back-and-forth. A very immediate rapport. To me, she seemed very familiar, like someone that I know, and I think I seemed familiar to her. 

I kept saying to her, “Whatever parameters you need to set, whatever boundaries as we’re collaborating, please feel free. I will respect those. I’m very aware that we’re dealing with people’s children, which is sensitive and delicate, and requires a lot of care.” And I kept reiterating that. And by the end of the conversation, she looked at me, she was like, “Look, I’ve been around the block a few times. I’m looking at you, I’m looking in your eyes, I can tell who you are, and I’m not worried.” And that’s what our relationship has been like.

Tell me about your approach going into this film. What moments were you looking to capture? How did you know where to begin, and how did you know when the film was over?

I made a list for myself of the themes that I was trying to really explore. Then I also made a list of things that I thought could make that visible in cinematic terms. And then I made a list of days and times and seasons that I thought those things would come light. I thought, ’I’m going to shoot on the first day of school’. That’s a day that I know, when you have kids and you’re working, there’s a million things that have to align, and they rarely ever align. 

Subsequently, [I was] thinking about the daycare as a kind of an ecosystem and an organism that has its own rhythm and rituals, and wanting to capture all those different rituals. Rhythms of the species. The very early mornings and the evenings, you have older, school-aged children around. The middle of the day is the kingdom of the little-little ones, and all these comings and goings, the parents coming in and out. And then doing the same for each of the parents that we featured. Developing relationships with them so that we could be in conversation, and I could kind of have a sense of what was going on in their lives. 

It was a combination of ideas that I sketched out, and then lots of conversation with the protagonists to know what was going on. Sometimes it was Nunu calling me and saying, “We’re going to march in the Thanksgiving parade, I think you should come out!” Because you get a sense of how much of an institution this childcare center is in this community. And we don't think about childcare facilities as institutions, but they very much are an institution.

What was it like to work with the children? What did they understand about why you were there, and how did they feel about it?

Oh, it was great working with them. There’s all different ages, so we had different kinds of responses. But I do have to say, I think that children now are so used to being recorded. There’s a kind of ease around that idea for them that I think is different for people that are a little bit older.

And every time we came in, there was some kind of moment of excitement and lots of questions. “Why are you here? What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What is this? What is that?” And we would always take whatever time was necessary to engage with them. Because it was important for them to know we were on their territory. On their terrain. So we never came in a hurry to get started. That was baked into production, taking the time to explain to them who we were and what we were doing. And then over time, they got to know us.

Diana, Marisol’s daughter, who you see become a teenager in the film, she ended up becoming really interested in cameras. So we got her a little consumer camera, and our director of photography [Naiti Gámez] gave her a couple of lessons, because she had an eye for the camera, but also for production. She started to help her a little bit when we were on shoots.

Sometimes we shot for twelve to fourteen hours, just to, again, get the rhythms and the transitions and the rituals. And I remember, some of them being like, “Why are you still here?” Like, “Go home!” You know how kids don't got no filter? It was really great. It was a bit of a gift having permission to slow down.

Beyond the tenderness of the film, there are some really gorgeous craft elements throughout. Tell me about your goals on the technical side of things. 

From the very first day of shooting, the love in this space was palpable. And so I was thinking, “How do I make this feeling of love that I’m feeling register on screen?” And that is in the gestures. Making sure that we are slowing down enough and capturing every nose that is wiped, every shoelace that is tied, every hairstyle that is done. All the decorations in the space—they decorate the space so meticulously for every season, every holiday. The space is crafted with a lot of intentionality, to center love, to center care, to center a sense of safety for the children, but also the parents. 

I told our DP I wanted everything to be a long shot. I didn’t want anything to be shot quickly. I wanted us to hold shots for a couple breaths. Because this love is so profound and sacred. But also, given the context, the lives that everyone is forced to live under racial capitalism in the United States, this love is quite radical. But we’re not taught and conditioned to see it that way. And so it's not just a matter of making this visible, but how do you make it legible for what it is? We talked a lot about lingering, so that we could disrupt the ways that we are used to seeing women of color, low-income women of color, and flip that. To more of... beholding. Creating cinematic conditions for you to experience what you’re seeing in a different way.

Naiti is a master of this. I think that's why she’s such an amazing verité shooter. There’s a moment that we have in the film that I think really crystallizes her and how brilliant she is. Noah wants to play with his tablet, Nunu takes his tablet away, he starts crying, she brings him into the kitchen to comfort him, and she kneels down to get at his level. They’re having this moment in the kitchen, Natiti saw this happening, and when they’re transitioning from the living room to the kitchen, she follows them. But the way that she shot it, she never went into the kitchen. She stayed at the door. Then we get our medium shot in the film by punching into the 4k footage. We get what we need, but she got it in this way that was very respectful of the space that they needed in order for that moment to actually be that moment. If she had been any closer, that moment would not have been what it needed to be, which was Nunu comforting Noah.

What documentaries inspired you while you made Through the Night?

Motherland by Ramona Diaz was one that I was thinking of. Cameraperson by Kirsten Johnson, really brilliant. To Be and to Have, the French film.

Perhaps the biggest influence would be The Tiniest Place by Tatiana Huezo, a Mexican-Salvadoran filmmaker. One of my top favorite documentaries of all time. She deals with very deep violence, massacre, memory from the perspective of the survivors of this massacre. But there’s so much dignity in the film. There’s nothing that is exploitative. There’s no gore. There’s no sensationalism. The way that she established her characters and handled character development, and cinematography—the film is amazing.

Even beyond documentaries, I was drawing a lot from [people like] Kathleen Collins and her work in Losing Ground. There are these Black women, filmmakers and authors, that I was really referencing. And in many ways, I feel like their work and their insistence on the importance of Black women’s interiority was giving me permission to make a subtle film about Black women. That’s not really the trend, in terms of films about our lives in the U.S. There’s really no subtlety. 

And I get it, because we face a lot of a lot of violence. But I was really intent on making it really subtle. [Like] Toni Morrison’s work. It’s about us, for us. It’s not really worried about an outside gaze. Carrie Mae Weems and The Kitchen Table Series. Those are some of the texts and pieces of art and films that I was most in conversation with while working on Through the Night.

More generally, outside of Through the Night, what’s the film that made you want to be a filmmaker? Something that sparked your love for movies or your ability to see yourself making them?

I have three recollections of really deep moments with documentaries that made me be like, ‘Maybe this is what I want to do.’

One, I was very young. A teenager. The first time I watched the full Eyes on the Prize series. I was participating in a youth organizing program in the South Bronx, and they screened the whole series for us over the course of several weeks. Up until that point in my life, I had not had that level of education around why things were the way that they were, in my neighborhood and in my life. There were all these things that I had experienced, that my family had experienced, that I didn’t fully understand. I knew that they were wrong, I knew I had feelings about them, but I didn’t fully understand how they had come to be that way. It just really transformed me and my understanding of the world and of myself in it. I remember, at that age, being like, ‘Wow. That’s what films can do.’

A few years later, I did a study abroad in Brazil, and I watched the film Bus 174. It [follows] one of these children that grows up on the street by themselves, who is [seen as] so disposable in our society. They made the film about all of the systemic violence and structural failures and injustice. And at the same time, he emerged as a fully human person in that film. And it really made a mark on me.

Then, a few years later, I saw a film that was actually on POV on PBS, but I saw it at a community screening here in New York: My American Girls: A Dominican Story. It’s a story of a working-class Dominican family in New York with three daughters. They’re New Yorkers, Dominicans, they identify as Black, their parents don’t know what they're talking about, the parents are working... And it was the first time that I recall—and I was already well into my 20s by this point—seeing a story about my literal community. I’d never seen a film about regular, everyday, working-class Dominicans in New York. That was so close to home. It’s important to see yourself. People need to see themselves.

The last thing I’ll say on that is that I haven’t forgotten how that film, and it being on PBS, and how I saw it at a community screening in New York [felt]. It makes the fact that Through the Night is broadcasting on PBS really special for me. Because Through the Night is not a personal film… but it is a personal film, you know? So it feels like this full circle moment. 

I love that this film is coming out around Mother’s Day. What are you doing for Mother’s Day? What should people be doing for Mother’s Day?

The only part of these days that I think is useful is that everyone is thinking about mothers. So anytime you have an event or a moment that concentrates people’s energy in that way, I think, is an opportunity to change the rest of the 364 days of the year. So for me, and with the film and this conversation around Mother’s Day, it’s just a chance to help us rethink and reframe the conversations and our understandings around mothers. 

Like the way that we have propped up essential workers is a lot of empty lip service. We put people up on pedestals, we call them heroes, and we flatten them. And then there isn’t room for their full complexity and all their needs. It’s an easy way for us to let ourselves off the hook. And in the year that we’ve had, there’s all these statistics about the impact of the pandemic on women, on mothers specifically, but even more so on mothers of color and low-income working class folks. There’s so much need to care for mothers, to mother mothers, to care for our caregivers.

That’s what we’re hoping to do with the film. Help people just completely rethink and reimagine the things that we now consider normal, which are actually really harmful to the people that are directly responsible for keeping us alive. Especially in communities of color, the labor of women of color and femmes is what keeps us alive in the face of so much harm and so much violence. But we don’t ever center them. We don’t ever really factor in their needs. Certainly not in the mainstream, but sometimes not even in our movements. And so that’s what I want to change, ultimately. Mother’s Day is just the hook to invite more people into that conversation. I just want support and ease and rest and dignity for the women in my community. And that’s not achievable in just one day.

In terms of what I’m doing myself, I actually don’t really know, if I’m honest. Which hopefully just makes it clear that this film is personal, and I made it for me. Because I feel like I need it. I’m working through some things. It’s a little bit hard when you’re a single parent and your kids are still young, and you also have your mother around. My default is to show up for my mother. I’m trying to make the day special for her. I don’t really have anybody that’s trying to make it special for me.

Answer this with as much or as little detail as you’d like to: As a Black and Latina working mother yourself, how did making a film like Through the Night affect you and your family personally? Or how did your kids affect the film? What has all of this brought up for you?

It’s brought up a lot. It has facilitated healing. Healing that I wasn’t even aware that needed to happen, between me and my mother. The film has brought up memories for her of my childhood, and there was a moment where she apologized to me for some things. And I was like, “No, Ma, it’s fine!” And she was insisting on the apology, and I finally realized, she needs to apologize to me for herself, so I need to accept this apology from her. And then beyond, when I did accept her apology, I also had to sit with it—I’m still sitting with it and processing it. Poverty is a straitjacket. Every day, she had to choose between Impossible Choice One and Impossible Choice Two. And given that reality, yes, there were things that she did that hurt me or impacted me.

I didn’t see it what way. My line to myself about my mother and my childhood was, ‘My mother is a great mother, she was really loving, and she was doing the absolute best that she could. She got dealt a shitty set of cards and she was making lemonade out of lemons. It is what it is.’ That wasn’t allowing for me to accept that, yeah, that’s true, and, it was still unfair sometimes. And I was harmed in some ways. That’s been very profound.

And then with my children… it’s been very powerful for me to share this process with them, because it’s shifted my own thinking around the possibility of being an artist and a mother… I feel like mothering and creativity and life as an artist are not as incompatible as they make us think. There are muscles that I’ve gained in my mothering that are really good for my creative practice, and there are muscles that I’ve gained in my creative practice that help me be a better mother. 

‘Through the Night’ will be broadcast on PBS on May 10, the day after Mother’s Day. It is also screening in Hot Docs 2021, and will have an in-person screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film’s website also has more information and ways to support caregivers.