FILM FOR THOUGHT
Presented by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities
THOUGHTS: THROUGH THE NIGHT
In the documentary “Through the Night,” filmmaker Loira Limbal turns a loving gaze on the intimate labor of Deloris “Nunu” Hogan who, with her husband Patrick, nurtures children in their 24-hour daycare in New Rochelle, New York. It is a tender film about personal relationships—between children and the beloved caretakers whom they know as Nunu and PopPop. It is a fierce film revealing love as hard labor: the exhausting, depleting physical and emotional labor of sustaining children in a world of ceaseless wage work that provides mothers no time or respite.
The camera pans the rooms of the blue clapboard house, an entire wall blanketed with photographs of children. It fastens on intimate details: the whispered conversation between Nunu and little Noah, the arm that tenderly encircles a child, the sweet peace of early morning as a child burrows into her blankets, while Nunu begins the morning routine. As light falls on the rapt faces of children, mostly Black and Latinx, the film reveals these as lives that matter.
Caretakers are in perpetual motion in this film, whether braiding hair, supervising math, or stirring a pot while cradling a child. No external narrator intrudes; the words are those of caretakers, mothers, and the children themselves. When one preschooler names Patrick “king of the house,” another pipes up, “Nunu’s the queen of the house too!” and Nunu shoots back: “Actually I’m the king and the queen. He’s the prince.” The film conveys the humor, patience, and unwavering gentleness that sustain children and their mothers through job loss, divorce, and financial hardship. It’s apparent in every gesture that these children are loved and that their mothers leave them as an act of love, in order to provide. It need not state, because we can see, that it is society that has failed the mothers.
“Through the Night” does not speak directly of gender or race, inequality or injustice. Instead, it follows Nunu through her day, greets one exhausted mother coming off the hospital night shift, and meets another whose three part-time jobs don’t make ends meet. In one scene, the camera hones in on a mother’s exhausted face, her whispered response to the query “Who takes care of you?” “At this point, me.” Such shots bespeak the brutality of a system built upon ceaseless work, and the disregard of an indifferent government for children and their caretakers.
As the women’s stories unfold, we learn that employers refuse women full-time work to avoid the cost of insurance and that minimum wage jobs cannot support a family. The film exposes the untruth that hard work leads to success. It reminds us that the labor of childcare is essential to the well-being of society as a whole.
Government has long turned a blind eye to the facts. In the US, the benefits of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act are available only to those of means. Even before COVID-19 transformed our lives, most mothers worked outside the home, childcare was insufficient and always costly, work hours inflexible and government subsidies inadequate. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black, Pacific Islander, Native American, Southeast Asian, and Latinx communities, with women, more often than men, in the front lines of medical care.
In its sensitive focus on working mothers, their children, and their caretakers, “Through the Night” leaves us with a lingering question: Who are we as a society to value so little what is most precious? Deloris Hogan is guided by a vision: a society in which care–educational, loving, community-based care—could lift every family. “Watch everyone’s children as you watch your own.” Enfolded within this film’s visual embrace, we begin to envision a world in which every child receives the loving care that we’d wish for our own.
ELIZABETH COLWILL is Associate Professor of American Studies and Affiliate Graduate Faculty in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She takes inspiration from many generations of activist women–including working mothers.
This essay has been produced as part of the 2020 FILM FOR THOUGHT Program in partnership with the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.