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SLAMDANCE DIRECTOR INTERVIEW: CYNTHIA LESTER, MY MOTHER’S GARDEN

by
in Filmmaking
on Jan 18, 2008


Interview by Brandon Harris

As Sundance begins this weekend, the world of independent cinema once again turns its attention to this snowy resort town thirty miles outside of Salt Lake. Yet, since 1995, Sundance hasn’t been the only act in town. The 2008 Slamdance Film Festival begins today at Park City’s Treasure Mountain Inn, opening with Randall Cole’s Real Time, a brisk indie comedy starring Randy Quaid. As a brief snapshot of some of the 29 features and 67 shorts that Slamdance will screen in the next nine days, I caught up with thirteen Slamdance Filmmakers to discuss their films with us.

My Mother’s Garden

Directed by Cynthia Lester
Sat, Jan 19th, 3:30pm
Sun, Jan 22nd, 4:30pm

The story of Eugenia Lester, a woman afflicted with hoarding disorder, and her three children, who struggle with the devastating consequences of her disease. Born in Poland in 1944 and raised in an austere communist society by an Auschwitz survivor, she moved to the consumer driven disposable society of America in 1974 and was overwhelmed by a culture of excess.

Where were you when you heard you were accepted to Slamdance and how did it make you feel?
I was at work, I work full time at a crisis center, G.E.M.S, www.gems-girls.org which helps girls on the street get a better change at life, so I had to run outside and scream, YES! Thank you! It really is a dream come true, I first came to Slamdance/Sundance when I was a teenager, I went to a performing arts school in the center of Pacoima. I think it was a program designed to help kids stay in school, we sold candy bars to pay for our trip. And now I have come full circle, I’m living the dream. Now, I know it taks a whole lifetime of hard work to get here. I can’t believe I’m actually at this point in my life. It wasn’t an easy road but I just had to keep thinking to myself you have to finish this film, and now we’re here!

When and why did it first occur to you to make a film about your mother’s illness?
I’ve always been trying to understand my mom. I first started making films about her in college, so this is kind of a continuation of that. I didn’t realize the house had gotten that bad after I moved to NY. I kept wondering how we were going to help her and I would become paralyzed by fear of the unimaginable task in front of us. Finally my brothers and I sat down and said we have to do something now before the city comes in to take her house away. That’s when I decided I would document the process as sort of a way to help me deal with the situation and create some sort of separation between the emotional toll this would take on me as a daughter and the responsibility I had as a caretaker to help her out of this. The first was to work together and figure out how we were going to get my mom to part with her “precious treasures” she had been collecting, making the film took a back seat sometimes, but I was able to put together a story that shows you a significant time in our life.

Did you initially see it a means to heal some of the wounds leftover from the childhood the film describes?
I guess so, I wanted so bad to have a relationship with my mother and sometimes having the camera there reminded us to be civil with one another and take a step back and observe how we are treating each other, sometimes it helped us move past our own hang-ups to really observe how the other person is feeling in the situation. I think I have healed because I don’t think I could be happy living my life knowing that someone in my family is suffering and this film gave me a chance to devote the last three years of my life to searching for answers that could hopefully create a better situation for my mom which in turn put me at ease. I don’t think I will ever get back the fact that my childhood wasn’t the best but I know that I have a strong family and even though we were poor and had a lot of difficult situations to get through which put strain on our relationships, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be a source of strength for other families. I always looked up to the “perfect” families next door, but from making this film, I guess I learned the true meaning of family. Even with my mother’s illness, she is someone I can talk to and she won’t judge me.

Has your mother seen the film? How does she feel about it?
Yes, my mother has been a part of the filmmaking process. She even started directing me what to shoot and what story to tell after a while, ha! Which I encouraged because I want it to be very much her story and our story. She disagrees with the fact that she has hoarding disorder she is still very much in denial about her illness, I think its her strong sense of pride, which is an asset I wouldn’t want her to lose, so parts of it inside the house are hard for her to deal with but she feels that this could hopefully help other families struggling with this illness and therefore supports the film.

Without clinical diagnostic criteria, do you think it is difficult for people to understand just how destructive obsessive hoarding can be?
We included a few clips of interviews with doctors about this disorder in the film but we didn’t use too much because it really wasn’t working since this is such a personal story, it felt foreign to suddenly have a talking head tell you about the disorder. I tried developing other creative ways to get this information across but that too felt jarring since the footage is very cinema verite and I didn’t want to break the focus of the story, which is about a family in crisis. I think this story has just as much to do with poverty and being an immigrant, single mother as it has to do with hoarding disorder. I feel there are so many factors that go into hoarding disorder and each case is so individualized depending on that persons psychological, socio-economic, and trauma background that it was more important for me to share my mother’s personal story, rather than generalize about hoarding disorder. Besides, I also feel like its so dehumanizing to just categorize someone as mentally ill and therefore they have such and such symptoms and that is who they are. No, that is only a small part of who they are, they could be a talented musician or have other strength that need to be taken into context. I think the film shows for itself how destructive it can be when you remove someone from their security…by showing how traumatic it was for my mother. But, the film follows our journey into learning about hoarding disorder, I didn’t even know it existed when I first started making this film and didn’t think my mom had it until I really started to observe her everyday life. So I felt it was more about the discovery about the illness than making a film about this topic.

What were the biggest challenges in constructing the film? Did you deliberate how certain editorial decisions would reflect on your mother?
Yes, we were very conscious of being sensitive to how we portrayed my mother and brothers. I wanted to make sure the audience had a chance to meet my mom as a vibrant woman who has an amazing philosophy on life and cared about saving the environment and has a lot of strong morals we should all be concerned about as a community. I held back from focusing too much on the condition of the house because my mother was hesitent at first to letting us inside so I wanted to be true to the story and refrain from letting us inside. It was also a careful balance how much of the story was mine vs. my mother’s, so I held back my personal story to let her story shine. I also incorporated some editorial decisions my mother requested, for example, getting to know her side of the story before we hear from the neighbors. I wanted to give her the upper hand in most situations and let her voice be heard.

Are any other projects in the pipeline?
I would like to possibly develop a fictional version of my life, from when I left home on. Also, maybe developing another doc about the subject matter I deal with at the crisis center G.E.M.S, commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. There was a film by David Schisgal last year about our girls in particular, “Very Young Girls”, but even David encouraged further exploration on the subject matter and said I should definitely give my shot at it since I have some personal experience from the time I left home.

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