“You need two things in life,” says filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum. “You need courage to accomplish any kind of greatness and you need the ability to forgive.” Kirschenbaum brings both to bear in her latest documentary, LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER!, which sees the filmmaker turn the camera on herself and her family, exploring her own abusive childhood and the long path she took to forgiving the mother who led it all.
Kirschenbaum first introduced her mother to the world in the short film, My Nose, which saw the filmmaker consulting a series of plastic surgeons, accompanied by her mother, after years of her mother’s insistence that her daughter get a nose job. The film was well-received, but her mother less so.
“People would talk to me and say, ‘I love your nose. Don’t touch it.’ And I knew the next thing they were going to say – ‘I can’t stand your mother,’” says Kirschenbaum. “I’m thinking, ‘You’ve hardly seen my mother. Let me tell you my story.’”
From what little people saw in the short, they were shocked that Kirschenbaum could possibly be on good terms with her mother, and she found herself devoting more and more time to conversations with people in similar circumstances who wanted to know how Kirschenbaum had moved on, how she had forgiven. Struck by the interest and impact, Kirschenbaum saw the value in telling her story.
“My mission in life just unexpectedly changed,” says Kirschenbaum. “By sharing my life and my journey, I’m going to help people. I’m going to teach people to let go of that anger.”
Digging through her past, uncovering decades’ worth of home video, shot either by her father on the old 8mm stock or by her own younger hand, and revisiting childhood diaries, Kirschenbaum slowly began to piece together the story of her traumatic youth under a matriarch who “sicced” her father on her “like a German Shepherd” and bullied by a pair of brothers she describes as “like bouncers.”
“I was in enemy territory,” says Kirschenbaum, who from an early age convinced herself that she was adopted in an effort to explain the hostility she felt. Reliving her childhood was painful, but ultimately it was a story she felt she needed to share. “I never expected I would put it out there,” says Kirschenbaum. “This is raw. This is not a vanity piece. It was the hardest project for me in every way.”
But the goal of the film is not pity for Kirschenbaum or shame for her mother (Incidentally, Mother Kirschenbaum has been relatively undisturbed by audience condemnation. “Bad press is better than no press,” she reportedly said amidst the media blitz for Nose Job. “I’m on the cover of The Washington Post.”), but rather to show the eventual reconciliation and forgiveness that the Kirschenbaum family found despite such a troubled past.
“I had forgiven her before I made the film. That’s why I made it,” says Kirschenbaum, who enlisted her mother as a willing participant. In addition to the dark days of her childhood, the film explores the growing friendship as mother and daughter reconnected on different terms later in life, including a turning point after the passing of Kirschenbaum’s father, when she and her mother traveled to Avignon. “A lot of people thought we would come back not talking to each other, but we came back closer and became favorite travel companions.”
LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! screens twice at the Sarasota Film Festival in Regal Hollywood 20, on Apr. 11 at 3:45pm and Apr. 13 at 3:15. Kirschenbaum and her mother will both be on hand for a Q&A session following the screenings. With the exception of a handful of private screenings, this will be the film’s premier.
“I’m very excited it’s finally coming out,” says Kirschenbaum. “It’s been a hard film for me to make and it’s been with me a long time.”