Intersection's host, Sara Shahriari, spoke with Manu Gerosa, the director of "Between Sisters," a film about Italian sisters and their struggle to share a long-held secret. The documentary is about Gerosa's aunt and mother, and showed to full houses during the True/False Film Fest.
Director Manu Gerosa says "Between Sisters" began as a personal project to preserve a memory for the future.
Gerosa says his family's hidden history profoundly shaped his aunt's life.
An excerpt of our interview with Manu Gerosa:
So, Manu, I saw your movie yesterday, “Between Sisters,” and it's the story of two sisters who live in a small city in Italy and there’s quite a bit of age difference between them. One of them is in her 60s and the other is close to 90, and they are just incredibly close and they have this really great relationship - and they are in fact your mother and your aunt. How did you decide to make this movie?
Well, I had been thinking for a long time I'll remember to film them and their special relationship because for me I spend most of my life with my aunt and my mother and I always witnessed these relationships, so full of love and hard comprehension, no? And several fighting, constant fighting. But then you know as it happened often that the things you have, closer are the things, are the stories that you postpone more in time because maybe you think something else is more urgent or important. And then in 2011, I realized that my aunt was really aging I mean even if she was already quite old, but to me she always appeared very lively and thanks to her bizarreness I didn’t really realize that she was an old woman, no? But in that moment I saw that she started to lose her memory and therefore she started to lose her independence. At the same time, I remember my mother, Ornella, mentioning for the first time the world 'caretaker,' and that was like... 'If I want to film something about them, I must begin now. I cannot follow, I cannot wait any longer.'
I think, you know, we see our families in close proximity all the time. Did looking through the lens at them change the way you thought about them or understand them?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that I can say this, I can answer to this question now after this film because probably before I had totally different idea. I think that having, being part of a family in a very close environment make you, like, make you think about other members of the family in quite static way. I think that it is very difficult to understand their relationship and the complexity of the people and the real changes. I make a stupid example okay? But for instance, maybe one time when you were younger you lost something and for your parents you will be always the one that keeps on losing the things. Even if it happens only once. I think you can, it is the perfect example. And then I remember that in the beginning when I started to film, when I started to film and when I started to watch the footage, I really had a very bad feeling that I was totally disturbed and bothered by my attitude while shooting. Because I didn’t recognize myself maybe from the footage I heard my voice in some sentence I was saying or something I was doing and really I couldn’t recognize me. To me, that person that was there it wasn’t me. It was like a stupid one to understand what my mother and my aunt were really trying to communicate to me. And then slowly I started to force myself to change my attitude and pay attention to what was lying beneath the surface of their words or their acts. And then I think that answering to your question, that yes the camera being there with the camera changed my perspective and allowed me to know them again from scratch.
It’s obvious that your family is incredibly close. Did you have any sort of trepidation or bringing a camera into this world of your family?
I would say that no I didn’t have doubts because in the beginning I said okay let’s start. Let’s film, and let’s see what’s going on. But I must say in the beginning I didn’t expect that what I was filming that it would become an a film in the end. For me, it was maybe an attempt to catch the moment. To try and film something and to maybe have just a memory about my family for the future to not forget them. Especially about my aunt maybe when she won’t be here anymore, and then I hadn't any doubt about that. But of course during the shooting, during the time I was filming, sometimes I had quite a hard conflict within myself about what was right to show and what was not. But at the same time as a filmmaker I had to accept that if I show something about somebody I don’t know that maybe is very intimate and can also be dangerous for this person or painful, I felt that I must act the same way towards myself and toward my family. I think that making this project was also for me an attempt to test me and put my feeling at stake.
I feel like, as an outsider looking out at Terry and Ornella, you see this huge age difference between them and then you start to realize through the film that there’s something in the family that’s a secret, and you start to think what could it be with two sisters with such a huge age difference between them. Did you know when you started filming that there was this secret or did it start to become something you were aware of as you were filming?
Well, my mother is 21 years younger than my aunt, so, of course there is that a big difference in the age but it is also a big difference to where you think something specific. I must say that in the beginning I did not know anything about the secret. I never heard neither my mother nor my aunt mentioning anything about it. But as soon as I started filming and I started to like question them, to ask why they were doing something or why they were acting or telling something the things the story came out quite naturally. Because I guess that this secret had always been there among them. But the problem is that we were blind to it. After so many decades being hidden this story had become a taboo and no one has was able to face this taboo. Probably we were victims, but at the same time we were guardians of this taboo we were trying to protect it. As a taboo works naturally no? And then I think that when I started to move the surface of things, immediately a big hole opened up and things started to come out, and, of course, in the beginning after the first time my mother revealed to me that she had some doubt about who her father had been. From that moment until the day of the revelation, I was pretty sure I was convinced that my aunt was, the reality was that my aunt was my mother's mother.
That is what I also thought!
And therefore she was my grandmother, no? Because, since I have memory, she had always acted like that - like a mother toward her daughter toward my mother, and like a grandmother toward me, and so, of course, many things were making more sense and I was combining the different pieces in my memory and I was thinking, 'Oh, of course! It must be that.'
But then the truth is not that it is a different one, no? They are not mother and daughter. They are half-sisters with a different father - and in the scene with the revelation, the day of the revelation, in that scene, in the film, that scene lasts more or less seven minutes, but the footage I filmed that day was more or less three hours and a half because it was a very long moment. And then I think that from that scene, I understood why I have been convinced about something that wasn’t the truth because I guess that when this event happened when my mother was born, and how it has happened, justifies the behavior of the follow years, of the following decades of my aunt. I guess that in the forties after the Second World War in Italy, the society was extremely conservative. Being born outside of the marriage was really a big scandal. So really everyone was trying to hide it, and then if you for some the fact that my aunt witnessed her father abandoning the family and other men stepping into the family, no, after the war he was a soldier coming from the south to fight the Nazis. And then she witnessed this second man stepping into the family leaving her mother pregnant and then abandoning again. I guess at the same time my aunt was at the age to build up her own family and have her own children. I guess that she was probably so disappointed, so shocked, so traumatized by the men behavior in general. And also she saw this little creature, her little sister coming to the world like unprotected, and I think she felt probably didn’t want to have her own family. She renounces that. In order to be there for the rest of her life and protect her little sister. And then you know I think that of course the truth is a different one. They are not mother and daughter but the way they live their entire life is as if they would be mother and daughter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.