Directed by Christy Garland. STC. 73 min. Opens Jan. 18 at the Royal.
A 75-year-old grandmother living in a ramshackle part of Georgetown, Guyana, Mary is hardly a conventional choice of documentary subject. As presented in The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song —a modest but surprisingly rich effort by Canadian filmmaker Christy Garland—she’s a figure who initially elicits pity, even revulsion. Since Mary is prone to wandering through town and begging neighbours for the change she needs to buy her daily supply of cigarettes and a potent local brew known as “high wine,” her adult children are continually trying to keep her confined to her home. But sitting around is not Mary’s style, even if her peripatetic habits and fondness for drink could lead to an accident on the roads near her home, thereby hastening her exit from the planet.
Her chief protector is her son Muscle, who otherwise spends his days preparing birds for the gruesome cockfights and rather gentler songbird competitions that provide most of his clan’s meagre income. It was these strange battles that originally intrigued Garland when she read about them in a 2007 article in The Walrus. And while the scenes of Muscle and his hustles certainly add colour to the film’s vivid depiction of Guyanese street life, The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song turns out to be less of an ethnographic study than a quietly moving family saga. As details emerge of the past abuse of Mary and her children at the hands of Muscle’s monstrous father, it is her strength that becomes her most defining quality, not her weakness for vice. Likewise, Mary’s frequent escapes from what one daughter calls “rehab” begin to seem curiously heroic.