Beniamino Barrese's Sundance doc 'The Disappearance of My Mother' examines the often fraught relationship between subject and filmmaker.
When Beniamino Barrese's mother announced her intent to "disappear" to a remote island and cut off communication with everyone she knew, he felt an urgent need to create a cinematic time capsule of her. What a perfect idea for a first feature film, he thought: a documentary about the complex woman he'd grown to see as not only his mother, but also an important public intellectual. There was one small problem, though. His mother refused to be filmed.
That might sound strange, given the fact that the filmmaker's mother is Benedetta Barzini, an iconic Italian fashion model and feminist. For Barzini, though, her disdain for images makes perfect sense; after all, she was subject to years of being reduced to an object by photography. "People just vanish inside the concept of beauty," she says in the film. In many scenes, Barzini expresses her contempt for the camera—and, by extension, her son, who is doing the filming—directly. Once, while she chews Barrese out for not turning off the camera, Barrese says, "What scene would you like to do, then?" She retorts, "The only scene I would have liked to do is me breaking your camera."
No Film School sat down with Barrese and Valentina Cicogna to discuss the delicate nature of the subject-filmmaker relationship, the difficulty of securing funding for your first feature, and more.
No Film School: You said you started filming home footage of your mother about 20 years ago. What was the point where you decided, “I’m making a movie,” rather than just filming your mother throughout her life?
Barrese: I actually started shooting [this movie] in 2016 because I wanted to capture my mother’s last lectures at the university. As part of her plan of letting go [and disappearing], she was retiring from teaching. It's one of the things that she enjoys the most. And I think she could have continued, but she really wanted to make a drastic change to her life. And so she said she wasn't going to teach anymore. She was just going to do these last lectures. I started going to these lectures and filming, because that's what she would allow me to do. She didn’t want me to film her in her daily life. As she says [in the film], she doesn't want to be captured as a person. So I could only film her as a teacher.
I realized that, actually, I had been filming her already for many years, and this project was in the back of my mind for quite a while. The project wasn't just about her, but about filming things that are on the verge of disappearing. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I was always filming and photographing people that I would meet because I would be scared that they would go away.
NFS: That’s interesting that you have always felt a need to document things before they disappear, because it's so opposite of the way your mom feels. That’s where a lot of the tension in the film occurs. Clearly, your mom never really wanted to participate in the film, so how did you find an opening for her to allow you to start experimenting?
Barrese: The editor of the film, Valentina, and I always talk about the paradox of making a documentary in terms of exploiting a subject for the sake of telling a story. You are getting a lot out of it. And what is the stake for the person that is represented? I liked the fact that this relationship with my mom was allowing me to really confront a topic that is important for whoever wants to make documentaries out of the real lives of people.
With my mom, this was the topic of her life. She was a model who spoke out against the [objectification] of women. In her life she found it very hard for a woman to be seen for something beyond her appearance. Now things are changing, hopefully.
So with my mom, I had to kind of use these intellectual, philosophical subjects about image to win her over. She likes these themes. These are the topics that she lectures about in school. So I thought, I can engage her by explaining her that the project we will be about this, not about her. So she let me film her lectures. At the beginning, the film was going to be about her and her students. Gradually, I won more of her allowance [to film], but she was never really happy making the movie.
Of course, there was a lot of footage that I “stole” of her, but I wasn't always aware that I would use that in the film. It took a while to understand that the intimacy [with my mother] was actually very important to show, and it helped to understand the more intellectual problems that I was just talking about. Because in a film, you have to ground things in a real emotional relationship. It's not just about explaining.
In a way, I was cheating her, because I was telling her the film was going to be these topics, but I was getting more and more footage that she wasn’t aware of. So when she saw the film, she was obviously surprised.
NFS: Did you two talk about the ethics of filming her, in the editing stage?
Barrese: The starting point for a lot of our conversations was another movie that we watched last year at Sundance called A Woman Captured. That filmmaker was also part of the dok.incubator, which is a lab that we were selected for with this project. The title, A Woman Captured, obviously made me really interested, and I thought, "Oh my God, this should be the title of my film! But then I went to see the film, and it's about a woman who is a domestic slave for a family. And thanks to the help of the filmmaker who starts to make a film about this family, she achieves freedom. As Valentina says, this film really [addresses] the ethical problem of documentary. Because in this documentary, the filmmaker takes steps to help this character.
Valentina Cicogna: Yes, she changed the life of her character.
NFS: So she wasn't just a fly on the wall. She gave her something back.
Barrese: Yeah. How can you just witness something that you feel is not right and not act? That’s always a question.
I love fiction films. The easiest way to make a documentary look like a fiction film is to just record without interacting with your story. At the beginning of filming, I thought, “My mom is so powerful, and I would like to turn her into a hero.” The best way to do that was to show her in her daily life. I didn’t want to be visible in the film. So I started from a very objective point of view. But then I guess, gradually, I saw that it was best to expose myself as well. Because I am the one hiding behind the camera. And generally the one hiding behind the camera has the power of being secret, and invisible, while the other person is the object of our attention.
Throughout the film, I exposed myself in ways that often are very uncomfortable, and, I think, embarrassing. It took a bit of courage. But I think it's the best revenge that my mom could get on me. I would love Richard Avedon and all these really cool photographers to have portraits hanging on a wall for people to look at and comment on their beauty. They just take women and they photograph them. But you know, I would love them to feel what it means to be in front of the camera.
I also had this kind of secret hope that through the film, I could show my mom that images are actually also positive things. But for her, the fact that it was me making this film made it more unbearable, because I should be the one that respects her the most.
NFS: In many moments in the film, we see Bernadetta doing things like refusing to shower, or peeing in front of the camera. I can only assume these are attempts to reclaim her agency over her image.
Barrese: Yes. We decided not to clean up the image of Bernadetta. We didn’t cut the moment in which she's pissing. In that moment, she was trying to ruin this poetic vision. She meant to do this. These are exactly the things that Bernadetta wants to show. For her, it was a way to flip around the stereotype of the woman, and the romantic image that we have. She told me, "You know, women don’t piss in films. It’s always a man who that does it, and why shouldn't I do it?"
Or for example, the scene in which is she refuses to change or shower. People told me, "Why do you have to damage your mom? Why would you do that?" Actually, it was a way for me to be respectful of what she wanted, and who she is. I’ve asked her, "Do you mind if I show those scenes?” And she said, "No, I want them in!”
NFS: I think it's interesting that you wanted to keep yourself out of the film at first. Many times throughout the film, your mother does try to pull you into it by saying your name, asking you questions, addressing you, and putting you on the spot. It's almost like you couldn't have possibly kept yourself out of it if you tried.
Barrese: Yes. She would do anything she could to disturb my creative process. And the first thing she could do was always to talk to me, to look in camera. She's a creative genius, because in fact this stuff is what makes it more interesting, and more real. She pretends that she's always in control, and I think she contributed a lot to the film like this. You know, she always says, "Why do you have to be so pedantic? So conventional?" She challenged me throughout the process.
NFS: She's doing her version of what you want, so you are collaborating, maybe. Do you think she saw it that way?
Barrese: She thought that we were collaborating. I mean, she would tell me that, no, we weren’t. But I personally know that we did.
NFS: In the process of making this film, did anything about your relationship to your mother change in some way that you didn't foresee?
Barrese: Totally. I mean, my mom always told me that I'm the only one of her four sons that looks at her not as a mother, but as a woman. As a person. So this was always present. But now I think there is more. Before, maybe this was just an idea, but now, I think we look at each other as two people. It's a different level of relationship. Maybe every adult has to stop looking at their mom as their mom at some point. For me, it happened through this film.
When you are overwhelmed by a really charismatic mother—one that had a huge past, and was incredibly successful, and beautiful—I think you really lack space. You have to gain your space back. In fact, my brothers and sister have been quite crushed by this huge personality. It's not easy to have a relationship with her. So I hope that by making this film, I have gained some space, I've kind of digested her life, her experience, and her very extreme intellectual and life beliefs. Now I might be a little bit more free—capable of looking at her, and us, with more balance.
NFS: That makes a lot of sense. Why did you decide not to include much specific context about your mom’s life? Why didn’t you ask her questions about her past?
Barrese: It’s because I didn't want to exploit her fame as a selling point for the film. I was really interested in making a film in the present tense about this woman today, for whom the past is a burden that she wants to get rid of. So why would I then make her past center stage? I wanted to just give enough to frame her into this woman that was a victim of the image, and wanting to get rid of the image.
I think that a lot of people might not be satisfied with this amount of information, because I mean, she has had an incredible life. But there are hooks that let people know there is more to learn. Her dad was a huge personality in Italian history, and I decided to not talk about it. Because for me, the dramaturgy was a model that wants to have a voice. To do justice to her life, I would need to write a book.
Cicogna : And we decided not to give too much space to the people that Benedetta knew, because Benedetta is not the results of her encounters. She's a person. She has her own persona, and we wanted to show that.
Barrese: But I do encourage you and everybody to look up her life, because it's very extraordinary.
NFS: You said you filmed for about three years.
Barrese: I think in total we did 40 shooting days over three years.
NFS: Did you shoot with a camera that you already had? Or did you go out and seek one out that would work for this project?
Barrese: I don't want to complain, but the film was not easy to produce. I was shooting, I was busy doing a million different jobs for a living. I decided to come back to Italy because I was living in London. I graduated at the National Film School in London as a cinematographer. I was having my struggles making a living.
Because I had a lot of experience in independent unpaid projects, I wanted this to be different. Instead of just shooting, I started submitting applications for funding. I went to a place where they rent cameras, and I said, "Please, can you just give me a camera? I need to shoot. I cannot pay you." So they kind of made this deal. I didn't buy a camera. I could use one of theirs pretty much any time I wanted for a specific set amount of money. And they kind of became a sponsor of the production. They are associate producers.
Gradually I got some funds. I had these grand ideas of 35 mm, which we did use for the final scenes. That was a big struggle. Nobody wanted to do that. The producer was always like, "Come on, this is such a spoiled film school attitude to just want to shoot on film." But I think because the film is about images, and how much an image is valued, I wanted to do that. And today, with digital, images mean nothing, because we can shoot so much. Before, an image was a piece of film, a tangible thing. I like that.
I think I had a complex of not making a real film. I was like, because of these ten years of going to shoot for free, and working for years on something that never gets done, I wanted to make a real film. I'm not saying that I wanted to make a super commercial film, but I would have liked to have had a real big production supporting me. And in general, everything was much more contained. We gradually got some support, but it was really, really small. I'm grateful of this now, because I could keep control of the creative process. I never had anybody telling me what I had to do. Now I know how you make a film with nothing. I learned about production. I learned how to cope with stress.
I dreamed of getting this really big producer that would be like, ‘Don’t worry. I'm going to give you all the money you need, and I'm gonna organize everything for you. And you can be sure that the film is going to have an audience. You're going to go to a festival.’ That's what I hoped, because I thought, my mom deserves this, you know? My love is so huge. I have to make this film really great.
We're lucky because we got to Sundance. But it wasn't at all a given. We got here by chance. All the steps were a struggle.
In the end, I didn't do justice to my mom, because she's not the person I portrayed. I portrayed a character.
NFS: It's a representation of her.
Barrese: Yeah. People say that a photo steals your soul. But my mom would say, ‘No, that’s not possible. Your soul is always invisible, and there's no photo that can take a soul.’
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.