Everyone (and their mother) knows the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In layman’s terms, this means that when the choice comes between family and non-family, you should always pick your family. Family is, after all, the one constant in life; through thick and thin, sickness and health, your relatives will always be there for you.
These assumptions, of course, neglect the realities of human relations. Not everyone has a family, and not everyone has a family that wants them to be part of their family. Some love might be unconditional; but just because you share blood with someone doesn’t always mean you love, or even like, each other.
So what do you do when you don’t like the ones you’re expected to love?
What do you do when those who are meant to love you don’t treat you the way you deserve?
Emmy-award winning filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum has intimate experience with these conundrums. Growing up with an emotionally abusive mother and a family that supported the abuse, Kirschenbaum underwent decades of anxiety and insecurity.
“I was really sick and depressed and pretty fearful of my mother,” Kirschenbaum said in a Skype interview. “Humiliation is the worst form of punishment, and it manifests itself. I got sick, I had headaches, I was throwing up, I had dizzy spells, and all of this was because of my fear of her and what she was going to do and when she was going to do it.”
Even as a respected filmmaker, Kirschenbaum felt the effects of her difficult childhood. When her mother entered her 90s, however, Kirschenbaum realized how little time together they had left. And so, she decided to forgive her.
In her new feature-length documentary, Look At Us Now, Mother!, Kirschenbaum chronicles her journey towards accepting the abuse her mother put her through in order to rebuild their relationship.
The film builds a comprehensive portrait of Kirschenbaum’s entire family, exploring the psychology of how they treated each other.
“I had no friend in the family,” she said. “They all worked for her. My brothers were her bouncers, my father was the German shepherd she sicced on me.”
Kirschenbaum believes that she got many of her documentary urges from her father. “He lived an unexpressed life, [but he] was a fanatic [for documentation]. We don’t just have all that 8mm footage [which I cut into the film] but photo albums too—on the back of every picture the names, the dates. I’m not organized like he was, but I am a diehard documentarian, capturing things. So maybe he could have been a documentary filmmaker, and maybe I’m following in his footsteps of documenting stuff.”
It’s important for Kirschenbaum to document her life, “because I have a horrible memory. I joke with people, and I go, If I’ve never photographed you, I might forget you.”
Kirschenbaum shot her film both by herself and utilizing camera crews. “If my two hands are in the shot, I didn’t shoot it, but if you only see one hand, chances are I shot it,” she said.
The movie itself was filmed mostly using inexpensive consumer cameras. Kirschenbaum is passionate in her belief that anyone can make movies. “I never went to film school,” she said. “I don’t watch umpteenth films, I haven’t studied it. I’m just a person who wants to tell stories because I want to help people.”
One of the most memorable scenes shot by others is her visit to a nose surgeon, which her mother had been hounding her about for decades. The subject of her prior short film “My Nose,” Kirschenbaum agreed to go for a consultation if her mother consented to having a camera crew present.
“My Nose” was Kirschenbaum’s first taste of what her personal filmmaking could mean to others. “I was shocked by the reaction,” she said. “People would queue up in lines to wait to talk to me, and they would say the same thing: I love your nose, don’t touch it, or I can’t stand your mother, how do you talk to her?”
At the urging of friends, Kirschenbaum developed seminars dedicated to helping adults reconnect with their parents. “The men would not talk about their personal stories in front of everybody; they’d talk about their toxic boss, but then on break they’d talk about their father or mother. The women talked in front of everybody about their personal stories.”
These seminars, and the reaction to her film, made Kirschenbaum realize how universal her story really is. “It doesn’t matter how famous you are, it doesn’t matter how rich you are, it doesn’t matter how many children or grandchildren or homes or cars you have—if you were hurt as a child by somebody very close to you, and you have not forgiven that person, it is affecting all your relationships. It is affecting your life.”
Despite the necessity of healing, this journey of forgiveness was one of the hardest that Kirschenbaum has ever taken. “When I sat down and reread [my childhood diaries], I actually relived it. And as a very sensitive human being, that really took me down a dark road. I must have been crying for a year nonstop.”
The biggest challenge of making the film, Kirschenbaum said, was not in telling the story of forgiveness, but in revisiting the past. “How do I tell the story of my childhood?” she said. “How do I take you back in the past and not sound like a victim?”
“I had really forgiven my mother before I even made the film, because I wouldn’t have made the film if I hadn’t, but I had to tell the journey, so I had to go back in time. And that was a big challenge, because how am I going to tell a journey that I didn’t really go out and shoot? I had to dig up a lot of footage that I shot over the years, home video footage.”
Kirschenbaum never expected to put her own story on the screen. “It’s like John Lennon’s line, Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. I spent my career behind the camera, telling other people’s stories, and making films and documentaries and TV shows about other subjects. I never in my life expected I would put my life out there in order to help other people.”
Despite the negative emotions that have been unearthed, Kirschenbaum believes that her mother is enjoying the ride. “She’s like a star. People follow her around, like, Oh! There’s the mother! Wherever we go, we’re in the bathroom, There’s the mother! I think she’s enjoying the attention.”
The most important thing for Kirschenbaum is the positivity she has gained from this experience. “[My mother is] absolutely brilliant and hysterically funny, the queen of the one liners, so it’s like I can say, Thank you Mother for my fucked up childhood, you will now make me rich and famous. I have so much material!”
Kirschenbaum, indeed, hopes the project can go global, but not entirely in the pursuit of fame. She hopes primarily to teach others the lessons she has learned. “You can’t change anybody else, you can only change yourself. The only thing we have control over is our mind. And we have control. We can wake up and decide to feel depressed today or we can wake up and decide to feel happy. It’s not what we go through in life, it’s how we handle it. That’s where our growth happens.”
“We are very focused on building this global outreach campaign and building a movement,” she said. “This is the beginning of something big.”