By Dejarelle Gaines, Copy Editor
As a child, many people often feel that they are born into the wrong family. Award-winning filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum felt this way as a young girl and decided to explore her mommy issues in her documentary “Look at Us Now, Mother,” opening at the Village East on April 8.
In her film, Gayle examines the relationship that she has with her mother, Mildred. Mildred is a very stern, critical woman very focused on appearances — her dedication exemplified in her tattooed permanent eyeliner. She would often tell Gayle that she needed a job to fix her “Jewish-looking” nose or that she needed to tame her big and wild frizzy hair.
Gayle had two older brothers, but, Gayle argues, that they were never exposed to the kind of scrutiny from their mother as she had been. Corroborating her claim with interviews from her brothers agreeing that their mother had been harsher on her as well as 8mm family home videos recorded by her late father, a self-proclaimed documentarian, Gayle forcefully puts together a narrative in which she comes across as the “good-natured” victim. All the while she is demonizing and depicting her mother as a villain.
The filmmaker’s goal seemed to be to depict this genuine tale of forgiveness, but in its execution it came out as a very unnatural story of how she coerces her mother into apologizing for not being quite the mother that she had seen in the movies. Dragging her mother from therapist to therapist as well as presenting her with old family footage, Gayle uses the camera to intimidate her mother into admitting that she had been emotionally abusive and that because of this, as a middle-aged woman she is still suffering the consequences.
While there were some instances that leaned toward the emotionally abusive side, her mother was not the monster that she tried so hard to depict her as. As the story unfolds, we find out that Mildred had some family issues growing up and that because this, as well as facing difficulties growing up as a Jewish woman in a white, anglo-saxon America, she may have projected her own personal anxieties from her youth onto her daughter Gayle.
Overall, the film was an attempt to make this authentic and deep journey to forgiveness, but it all seemed very staged. A scene where this was epitomized was toward the end of the documentary where she takes Mildred to the cemetery where her infant sister — who died of pneumonia as an infant — was buried. Gayle and Mildred are standing together looking at the headstone and Gayle asks her mother if she was okay. Her mother says that she is fine. Gayle then asked if she needed tissues, but her mother replied with a no saying again that she was fine. Gayle asks a few more times, hoping that seeing the headstone would elicit some strong emotional reaction from her mother, but it didn’t.
Gayle tries very hard to create this heart-wrenching story of how she, the victim, finds it in her heart to forgive her mother for all of her past transgressions. However, it is easy as the filmmaker who is making all of the behind-the-scenes editing decisions to depict herself in such a flattering light. If Gayle wanted to create a more honest depiction of the journey to forgiveness with her mother, it would behoove her to put herself on the other side, under the intimidating and judgmental eye of the camera.
The film opened in New York City at the Village East on April 8.