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Eager to enlist as a volunteer, San Francisco filmmaker Jennifer Steinman began researching a trip to Africa when she stumbled on a quote by United Nations envoy Stephen Lewis: ?Virtually every country in East and southern Africa is a nation of mourners.?

The last word stuck with her. She had a good friend who was mourning the loss of her son in a head-on car crash. As resonant films often do, her documentary started with a simple question: What if her friend, Barbara, who she?d watched struggle through the grieving process for years ? journeyed to Africa to work with needy children and in the process healed herself?

Just to be around children again could be therapeutic. To see if other mothers suffering the loss of a child might be interested in the journey, Steinman talked to grief counselors and eventually sent out an e-mail blast.

?I wound up getting close to 100 e-mails from mothers around the country. They were sending letters, they were sending pictures,? remembers Steinman. ?It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, watching my Inbox fill up with all these women who wanted to go.?

Nearly three years and $500,000 later, her powerful documentary ?Motherland? ? about a group of moms who travel halfway across the world to find themselves again ? screens tonight in a sneak preview at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival before its official world premiere at South by Southwest Film Festival next week<NO1><NO> in Austin.

The 17-day pilgrimage took them to the far-flung town of Oudsthoorn, South Africa, where the six mothers worked at a local day care center with kids whose families had been devastated by HIV/AIDS. Upon arrival, they would discover that their host, Hazel Jonker, had lost a daughter 12 years earlier ? one of many fateful events that fell into place during the filming process.

?The women who went just knew from the moment they heard about it that they were supposed to go,? says Steinman. ?It was very clear from the very beginning.?

Two of the participants were Sonoma County mothers. Debbi Berto, a Windsor paramedic, lost her son Garrett in 2004 when he was struck by a drunk driver while waiting on the side of Highway 101 for a tow truck for his disabled car.

?Her life at home is very isolated. She feels alone. She feels like an outcast and like no one understands her anymore,? Steinman says. ?And she opened up like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. It was like Florence Nightingale. She would have a flock of children around her at all times.?

She also delivers one of the strongest lines in the movie: ?For 17 days, I don?t have to pretend I?m happy.?

Kathy Jimenez, who works in a Santa Rosa emergency room, lost her son Michael in a motorcycle accident less than 14 months before filming began.

?Before we left, she could barely complete a sentence without crying. Her tears were always right there on the surface,?<NO1><NO> Steinman says. ?I was worried that I wouldn?t be able to get her to talk on camera without crying.?

Her transformation on film was the most visible and physical of all six mothers, as she moves from a hunched-over gait and a perpetual frown to standing up straight and smiling.

?By the end of the trip, she was glowing,? Steinman says.

Since the film?s completion, an inspired Marin organization, Project Grace ? named after one of the children mourned in the documentary ? has begun planning 10-day trips for families coping with loss. Several weeks ago, a trip to El Salvador to build a school was catered specifically for fathers who had lost a child. In June, families can journey to Nicaragua to help build a school.

But, as a coping tool, the film works without ever leaving the house.

?I have this vision that when your friend loses a child,? says Steinman, ?this is the gift you give them instead of a bouquet of flowers.?

John Beck, a staff writer, can be reached at 521-5300 or at john.beck@pressdemocrat.com.