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The Fine Art of Forgiving

Filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum talks about letting go and moving on

By Judie Jacobson

black_23Emmy award-winning filmmaker and television producer Gayle Kirschenbaum is often called the “Nora Ephron of documentaries,” — a nod to her trademark self-deprecating humor. Now, Kirschenbaum has turned the camera on herself with “Look at Us Now, Mother! “ — a documentary that chronicles the transformation of her highly charged mother/daughter relationship from deep resentment to love and forgiveness. The film is a broader version of her funny award-winning film, “My Nose,” in which we follow her mother’s relentless campaign to get her to have a nose job. For Kirschenbaum, the insightful lessons learned through the making of “Look at Us Now, Mother!” have turned into a life-altering experience that is altering the trajectory of her own career.

Kirschenbaum created and executive produced several shows for TLC and Discovery Health. In addition to her “My Nose” and “Look at Us Now, Mother!” she made a poignant and wacky film with her dog about the human/canine bond called “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary,” and co-created the show “Judgment Day: Should the Guilty Go Free,” both of which premiered on HBO. She also produced several television programs, including “America’s Most Wanted” and “Intimate Portraits.”

The founder and operator of Writers on the Hudson, Kirschenbaum is a member of the Producers Guild of America, NYWIFT and a judge for the Emmys. She has been featured in The New York Times, NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s Early Show, Fox TV, Oxygen TV, the Ladies Home Journal, Washington Post, O Magazine, CBC Radio, and BBC Radio.

“Look at Us Now, Mother!” will screen at the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival on Sundays, April 3 and 10. The April 3 screening, will be followed by a discussion between Gayle Kirschenbaum her mother, Mildred Kirschenbaum, and Nancy Lichtenberg, LCSW, of Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Gayle Kirschenbaum about her mother, their relationship and her new film.

Q: What was it that drove you to make this film at this point in your life?

A: As a TV producer my life was behind the camera; interviewing other people, telling other people’s stories. I ended up in front of the camera when I came up with an idea for a TV series with my dog, a Shitzu called Chelsea who is now deceased. She was my canine soul mate — I rescued her and she rescued me. After 9/11, she became a therapy dog, she was an unbelievable hero. I ended up getting tons of press. So, I thought I should make a movie. “A Dogs’ Life: A Dogamentary” aired on HBO. It put me in front of the camera and I was completely at home there.

It was a short time afterwards that I said to my mother, who had always wanted me to have a nose job, that I would finally go visit a plastic surgeon for a consultation if I could have a camera crew there. Well, she couldn’t care less about a camera crew, so I ended up going and then making a funny film called “My Nose” about my mother’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. That little film played in festivals all over the world and won me a best director award in a competition against big feature films. I was shocked. It proved to me that this little homemade movie was touching people’s hearts and they were relating to it. People would queue up to talk to me after the screening and they would say the same thing: “I love your nose, don’t touch it” and “I can’t stand your mother. How do you talk to her?” And “please let me tell you my story.”

So, I ended up hearing everybody’s stories because we all have a story. I thought, everybody’s hurting, and I found myself coaching people. I was invited to a Limud session in the Catskills and I presented the film and the same thing happened. But this time there was a therapist present who witnessed this and said “you need to do a seminar.” I ended up developing a seminar based on what I call the “Seven Healing Tools,” because what blocks us from achieving anything great in our life is that negative voice that says you’re not smart enough, you’re not pretty enough, you’ll amount to nothing. And we have to render that voice powerless, because if we let that voice control us we won’t take the risk and we won’t have the courage needed to accomplish great things.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the challenges of your childhood and its effect on you.

A: I see this as an opportunity for us to grow and I’m building a movement based on forgiveness and healing.

I was dealing with a mother who was relentlessly critical and abusive and a whole family that jumped in to join her — a father who turned his rage on me and one brother who wanted me dead and another brother who just did whatever my mother told him to do. It was like living in enemy territory. But I believe I came into this world as an old soul, and I realized from a young age that to survive I had to figure out what was going on. I knew I didn’t do anything wrong — I just had this unbelievable rage turned on me. I knew that what was making her do this was something that happened to her in her childhood. I used to try to dig up these answers from her brothers but everyone kept secrets. This was during a time when you didn’t air things like that.

Although people always comment that I have remarkable confidence after all that I went through, it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t scarred. I am. My issues are that of trust and abandonment, because my parents were not loving. They were attacking nonstop. So how can I trust anybody when all they did were things to hurt me all the time? That’s probably why I’m not married — because I made up my mind when I was young that I would never let anybody hurt me like that again. But I’ve had a good life. I’ve had good relationships and I do hope one day that a good partner for me will come along and I have faith and I will live out the rest of my life with somebody.

The good news is my self-esteem was not affected. My mother criticized everything about me but it never had any effect on me as far as my self-esteem went, as far as how I regarded my looks. I thought God was good to me. I had nothing to complain about in terms of how I came out physically and I feel lucky.

Q: What is it one needs to move on?

A: There are two things you need: courage and the ability to forgive. And this is my mission: to teach people how to get there. While I was doing these seminars I heard more stories and realized that it doesn’t matter how successful someone is on the outside — how much money they have or what career they have or whether they have spouses and children — if they were hurt by somebody in their childhood, and invariably it’s a parent, and they have not let go of that anger and resentment, it’s affecting everything in their lives; their relationships; their health, etc. Hanging on to anger and resentment is an addiction unto itself. I had an eating disorder from the time I was a teenager until I was 32. It was the result of my mother telling me that I was fat when I was skinny and making fun of me in front of everybody. She did very mean and evil things to humiliate me. My food addiction continued when I went away to college, through my 20s — I’d be out with friends and I would have to get away from them because I wanted to binge.

Q: You say you’ve forgiven your mother. How did you get to that point?

gayle with mom for web siteA: You look at the person who has been abusive — in many cases your mom — and you reframe the way you look at her. Instead of looking at her as the person who should love and adore, you look at her as a wounded child.

I tell people, if your three-year-old looked up at you and said “mommy or daddy, I don’t love you anymore,” what are you going to do? Will you smack them around for not loving you? No. You’re going to pick them up and give them love because you know they need it. So, when your mother says ‘you’re stupid’ or ‘you’re fat,’ she’s a wounded child. She needs love. The power of love is so strong, because when somebody’s being nasty to you and they want you to react and they want you to cower and yell back, they need love. If you react to them by being kind to them you will completely render them powerless over you and they will eventually stop.

People can be mean and nasty — we all can be, because nobody’s an angel all the time. And we’re usually that way when we’re under pressure or when we’re feeling fear or angst. It doesn’t bring out the best in us. So, when someone who’s pretty abusive is a parent, you better believe that person is hungry for love because he or she is missing it.

Q: You found a way to forgive your mother. But did she want to be forgiven?

A: You know, it doesn’t matter. In the film, the therapist asks her to look at me and say she’s sorry. She does as the therapist asks her to do. But when it comes down to it, according to her she did the best she could do, and I believe that . I wouldn’t call her an introspective person. She is very smart, very learned, very entrepreneurial. She’s been in business; she’s a pretty voracious reader; she’s brilliant with investments. I have a lot of her traits in a sense of that fearlessness and that zest for life and the courage; but I excel in understanding people. I’m super super sensitive and I understand human beings. I know how to work with people and I understand what makes them tick. She doesn’t.

Also there’s the issue of narcissism. My mother is a narcissist. The question is, are you born a narcissist or do you become a narcissist? Ii’m not a therapist — I’m an accidental therapist — but a lot of people say you’re not born one, you become one and it happens in your childhood. A lot of children who were doted upon become narcissists, and my mother in her childhood was doted upon because her sister had died and her parents lived in fear of her dying. A narcissistic woman wants a lot of attention and she wants a lot of attention from men. A woman who was a contemporary of my mother came over to me after one of my Q&As and said, “I have three boys and my husband said it’s a good thing I never had a daughter.” And then she looked at me and said, “your mother never should have had a daughter.” Competition arises.

Q: You mention your two older brothers. Did you have a certain amount of resentment towards them as well that you had to overcome? What do they think of the film?

A: They both love the film. I didn’t want to make a movie to vilify my mother and hurt anybody in my family I just wanted to tell my story and tell my journey to forgiveness. And that was a big challenge. My older brother is in the film and I actually showed the movie to him and my mother at the same time, at a private screening with 100 people. It was phenomenal. I got a great standing ovation and I think both my mother and brother were deeply moved and I know they’re very proud. My middle brother, who was really after me growing up, saw it at a festival in Sarasota, and when I sat down with my family afterwards [at the reception] I asked him what he thought and he teared up — and he’s not a tearing up kind of guy. I just hugged him. I don’t see him very often because he lives in Florida and so it wasn’t until many months later that I saw him and asked him why he teared up after seeing the film. He said “you had it so bad,” and he felt sympathy for me. He said “you couldn’t do anything right” and he finished it by saying “and I couldn’t do anything wrong.” The fact that he had the foresight to see that made me realize that he understood. But you know there’s also something problematic with being raised where you can’t do anything wrong, because you’re put on a pedestal and that’s not reality and it could create narcissism.

But my brothers continued to bully me throughout adult life. So, it’s a good question and I’m happy you asked it, because I hadn’t forgiven them and I realized during the course of making this film that I had to. I had forgiven my mother and my father by reframing them — by looking into my childhood and seeing what they went through and taking them away from being my parents who should love and adore me to being wounded children. From my point of view, my brothers were the golden children — they were being loved and adored by my parents, and I have footage to prove it — and I was like Cinderella, a slave. I will talk with them about it one day. [But for now], I was able to change how I looked at them and forgive them. We have completely different relationships today, and that happened because of the film. They don’t bully me any more. They have a respect for me and I have a love for them.

Q: In what ways has this film been a life-changing odyssey for you?

A: Totally life-changing. It’s like the John Lennon line: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. My assistant, who is very spiritual, said you’re on a divine mission and it’s true. It’s as if I have been tapped. After the screenings of my film I’ve had many standing ovations. I’m mobbed when my talk is over and I’ve shared how you forgive and how you have to reframe how you look at people in order to get to that place.

We’re going to launch a whole new movement. I’m putting a team together and I’ve started to build this organization to get the movement going. I want to launch “Drama with Mama,” which will be modeled after NPR’s The Moth. I want to build a community in which you can tell your story; we’ll give you guidelines and it will be a competition with different themes. Then I want to launch a podcast series of conversations all sorts of people — both regular people and celebrities. I want to create an app of a forgiveness game; it was a board game I played years ago that was one of my turning points that led me to learn how to forgive my mother. I want to have a website that’s a kind of one-stop-shopping, so people can go there and find a supportive community — they can find the books, videos, all sorts of media and content. Everything I create going forward is going to be related to this topic, because I have hit a nerve.

Q: Are you focusing on forgiveness in general or forgiveness as it relates to one’s mother in particular?

A: It’s a good question because I do get a lot of men coming by. But I’ve been advised by marketers to be narrow in my focus. So i’m going to focus on forgiveness and healing between mothers and daughters, because you know that’s the most highly charged relationship, and we’ll expand thereafter.

Q: Finally, has your mother stopped bugging you about the nose?

A: Oh yes, she stopped bugging me a long time ago about the nose. I think she stopped after I made the nose film. So, if your mother’s bugging you, just make a movie about it. That will stop her.

 

20th Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival March 31-April 10

broza_banner_1Legendary Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza will open the 20th Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Fest on Thursday, March 31, with a live appearance at the premiere of his new film “East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem.” The 10-day, seven-venue festival runs through Sunday, April 10, and features 22 films from France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States — with a host of opportunities to meet, eat and think with 15 invited filmmakers, actors, musicians, authors, playwrights, artists, scholars and a celebrity chef. All foreign films have English subtitles. All events are under the supervision of the Hartford Kashrut Commission.

For ticket information and tickets visit the Festival website at hjff.org, email tickets@mandelljcc.org, or call (860) 231-6316. The Festival is partially funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford and other organizations and individuals.

The Connecticut Jewish Ledger is media sposor.

 

OPENING NIGHT

THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 7 p.m.
Mandell JCC, West Hartford
Reception following screening: “David Borza LIVE! In Conversation and Song”

Encore Screening:
SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 4:30 p.m.
Bow Tie CInemas, Palace 17, Hartford
EAST JERUSALEM, WEST JERUSALEM

Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza journeys to East Jerusalem, accompanied by renowned American, Palestinian and Israeli musicians, to record his latest album in a marathon eight-day session in the studio of the Palestinian band Sabreen. Broza will attend opening night, answer audience questions, sing selections from his latest album and greet fans.

 

SATURDAY, APRIL 2
8 p.m., reception; 9 p.m., film
Mandell JCC, West Hartford

Encore Screening:
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 6, 7 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, West Hartford
KICKING OUT SHOSHANA

(Israel) — A charming Jerusalem soccer star is caught flirting with a mobster’s gorgeous girlfriend. His punishment: Either lose part of his male anatomy or fake-announce publicly that he is gay.

Screens with:
The Ten Plagues
(USA) — En route to a Passover seder with her family, a young woman encounters a 21st century ten plagues of biblical proportions.

 

SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 1 p.m.
Spotlight Theatres, Hartford

Encore Screening
SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2:15 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, Palace 17, Hartford
LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER!

(USA) — Reel Talk following film with the director’s
mother, Mildred Kirschenbaum, and Nancy Lichtenberg, LCSW, Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford.

 

SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 4 p.m.
Spotlight Theatres, Hartford
Encore Screening:
THURSDAY, APRIL 7, 6 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, West Hartford
10% MY CHILD

(Israel) — To be with Franny’s mom, Nico has to win Franny’s heart. Set in Tel Aviv, this story about friendship, love and modern families focuses on a single 26-year-old aspiring filmmaker and the seven-year-old daughter of his girlfriend.

Screens with:
BULMUS (CAUGHT IN THE NET)

(Israel) — A small comedy based on a short story by Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon.

 

SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 4 p.m.
Spotlight Theatres, Hartford
EVERY FACE HAS A NAME

(Sweden) — On April 28, 1945, hundreds of just-liberated concentration camp survivors arriving to the harbor in Malmö, Sweden were filmed by Swedish journalists as they take their first steps in freedom. Now, 70 years later, they watch the archive footage for the very first time.

Screens with:
Remember: Facing The Holocaust – Greater Hartford Stories of Survival

(USA) — A video introduction to the exhibit at the University of Hartford’s Museum of Jewish Civilization.

 

SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 7:30 p.m.
Spotlight Theatres, Hartford
TO LIFE!

(Germany) — A once-sultry cabaret singer Ruth and a handsome but gravely ill young man on the run in Berlin. Opposites in age and life experiences, the pair forge an intertwined bond of friendship, giving each other a reason to live.

 

SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 7:30 p.m.
Spotlight Theatres, Hartford

Encore Screening:
SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 4:30 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, Palace 17, Hartford
DOUGH

(Hungary/United Kingdom) — A warm-hearted dramedy about an old-school Jewish baker struggling to keep his dying business afloat in London, and his young Muslim apprentice who accidentally drops his stash of cannabis in the challah dough.

 

MONDAY, APRIL 4, 5:30 p.m.,
Zahav A La Carte Dinner
7 p.m., film
Mandell JCC, West Hartford

IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE

(Israel/USA) — Top chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Michael Solomonov travels throughout Israel, profiling the 100 cultures that contribute to Israel’s culinary palette today. Plus, a pre-show buffet of dishes from Solomonov’s new, best-selling cookbook. Chef Solomonov and film director Roger Sherman will attend the tasting.

 

MONDAY, APRIL 4, 7 p.m.
Mark Twain House, Hartford
ARE YOU JOKING?

(USA) — Barb Schwartz is Jewish, single, smart and fed up with her dead-end paralegal job and her dysfunctional Long Island family. Her life sorta sucks; she just can’t catch a break. When her law firm lands a scandalous sex-tape case involving her childhood BFF, Billy the gay ballet dancer, her life starts to turn around. Actress Sas Goldberg will attend.

Screens with:
THE TEN PLAGUES
(USA) — see above

 

TUESDAY, APRIL 5, 1 p.m.
The Emanuel Synagogue, West Hartford
THE MUSES OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER

(Israel) — An intimate portrait of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer through the eyes of the 40 women translators who knew him best. Professor Joshua Lambert of the National Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, Mass, will interview Leah Napolin, playwright of the Broadway show, “Yentl” following the screening.

Screens with:
70 Hester Street
(USA) — A short film about an old building.

 

TUESDAY, APRIL 5, 7 p.m.
The Emanuel Synagogue, West Hartford
IMBER’S LEFT HAND

(USA) — An inspiring chronicle of the final months of renowned Massachusetts artist Jon Imber, who continued to paint after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Followed by an interview with filmmaker Richard Kane, artist Jill Hoy, and Ron Hoffman, director of Compassionate Care ALS.

 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 6, 7 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, Blue Back Square,
West Hartford

Encore Screening:
SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2:15 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, Palace 17, Hartford
SERIAL (BAD) WEDDINGS

(France) — A romantic comedy about a bourgeois Catholic family upended by the multicultural marriages of their four stunning daughters.

Screens with:
SUNDAY, APRIL 6
SOME VACATION
(USA) — An ecumenical holiday road trip.

 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 6, 7 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, Blue Back Square,
West Hartford
THE KIND WORDS

(Israel) — Three adult siblings discover their late mother’s secret love life and set off on a journey in search of the mystery man who sired them.

 

THURSDAY, APRIL 7 8:15 p.m.
Bow Tie Cinemas, Blue Back Square,
West Hartford
ONCE IN A LIFETIME

(France) — A determined high school teacher taps into stories of the Holocaust to motivate and challenge her troubled inner city students. Based on a true story.

 

SATURDAY, APRIL 9, 8 p.m.
8 p.m., reception
9 p.m., film
Mandell JCC, West Hartford
ROCK IN THE RED ZONE

(Israel) — Despite living in the “bomb shelter capital of the world”, the people of Sderot, Israel persevere under fire through music. In underground clubs, young artists transform Israel’s ethnic pop-rock music scene.

 

SUNDAY, APRIL 10,
10 a.m., Bagel Brunch & Reel Talk
11 a.m., film
Mandell JCC, West Hartford
RABIN IN HIS OWN WORDS

(Israel) — Twenty years after his assassination, the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Prime Minister, soldier, diplomat and Nobel Prize winner, tells his dramatic life story — through rare archive footage, off-the-record interviews, home movies and private letters.

 

CLOSING NIGHT
Tribute: Observations on Survival and Spirit—Lessons from the Holocaust
SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 7:30 p.m.
Mandell JCC, West Hartford
THE LAST MENTSCH

(Germany/Hungary) — Auschwitz survivor Marcus Schwartz dealt with his trauma by creating a new identity in post-war Germany. Facing mortality, he now wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery but needs proof of his long-denied heritage.

Following the film, Trinity College Professor Samuel Kassow and University of Hartford Professor Avi Patt will present a work-in-progress sneak preview of “Who Will Write Our History,” an upcoming documentary based on Kassow’s book that tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto’s hidden archives.

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