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Gayle Kirschenbaum on Childhood Trauma and Forgiveness in ‘Look At Us Now, Mother!’

Gayle Kirschenbaum on Childhood Trauma and Forgiveness in 'Look At Us Now, Mother!'

Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, TV producer and personality. She is the producer and director of the documentary “My Nose,” based on Kirschenbaum’s experience with her mother, who urged her daughter to get a nose job since she was 15. She directed “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary,” which premiered on HBO. The documentary is about the positive effects of the bond between dogs and humans as told through Kirschenbaum’s story with her Shih Tzu. Kirschenbaum is a published author and artist. (Press materials) 

Look At Us Now, Mother!” opens in NYC and LA April 8. 

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

GK: It is about the transformation of a highly charged mother-daughter relationship from “Mommie Dearest” to dear mom, from hatred to love. It’s about forgiveness. It’s my story.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

GK: It was due to the reaction of a funny short film I made called “My Nose” about my mother’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. After the Q&A people stood on line to tell me their story. I realized then that so many people were still in pain due to childhood trauma. It doesn’t matter how rich or famous someone is, if they were hurt by someone close to them growing up invariably a parent and they have not forgiven that person, it is affecting their relationships and even their health.

It is so important to learn how to forgive. It is the biggest gift we can give ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether the person who hurt you ever says they are sorry or even acknowledges that they did anything wrong — it is crucial to find a way to forgive that person. I teach people how to do this.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

GK: I want people to reflect on their own life and think about someone who they are still hanging onto anger and resentment towards and work on forgiving that person. For me, it is about reframing how I look at that person. Once I see them as a wounded child — as oppose to in my case, my mother who should love and adore me — I changed my expectations and took away her power to hurt me. I was no longer a victim.

I did this by digging into her past and seeing what she went through as a child. And realized what she needs is a lot of attention and love. We all want to be heard, acknowledged and loved. When we don’t feel it is when we act up. It is amazing how you can change a person’s behavior by giving them love.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

GK: I did not want to come across as a victim. Nobody likes a victim and I did not want my audience to slit their wrists [by making the] film abuse [too] heavy and dark. My mission was not to vilify my mother but to help others. I ended up taking over the editing and restructured the film and added humor. Mom is a laugh-a-minute and I can be irreverent. I believe laughter is healing. I wanted people to walk out feeling inspired.

One of my light-bulb moments was when I was trying to figure out how to take my audience back to my childhood. I remembered I had kept diaries in which I both wrote and sketched. When I reread them I relived the trauma. That was extremely hard, emotionally. And that is when I decided I would include some of the entries so my audience could get into my head at the time it was happening.

W&H: How did you get the film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

GK: I ran a Kickstarter campaign to get my initial funds. Then I got some grants including a NYSCA grant and then I did some house fundraising parties along with going directly to backers. And then I ran another Kickstarter campaign to help with the distribution. I also did a lot myself and had many interns working with me.

W&H: What is the biggest misconception about you and your work?

GK: Can’t think of any.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

GK: Often people have told me that my work does not have a market. For example, when I made a personal film with my dog called “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary”  no DVD distributor would take it. They thought there was no market for it. I ended up distributing it myself and it got it out widely into the major DVD stores at the time — even every PetSmart.

The best advice I have gotten has not really come from the film business but from thought leaders in the spiritual world. I am a firm believer that if you put your mind to something you can make it happen. And if something blocks you, you need to look at how to go around it.  

I don’t operate much in the studio system in my personal work. I know my audience and I know how to reach them. I am not waiting for someone else to give me permission or a green light.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

GK: Follow your passion. I don’t have much experience working in the system to make feature films as I work outside it to make indie films. If you are passionate and confident about your work, you will find your backers, supporters and team to help you achieve your goal.

And never give up. The key to success is persistence. When an obstacle surfaces, it is an opportunity to grow. There is a reason it came up and take the time to reflect on why it did and what you can do to change.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why

GK: I love many of Mira Nair’s films. She takes me into another world with incredible characters. I love her storytelling and her direction. There is passion, conflict and humor.

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