“I Have a Naive Conviction That Images Serve a Potentially Positive Purpose”: Beniamino Barrese on The Disappearance of My Mother
Not many filmmakers have a mom who’s an iconic model from the ’60s, photographed by the likes of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, a muse to Warhol and Dali. Far fewer have one that kept that past hidden. Indeed, it wasn’t until director/cinematographer Beniamino Barrese made a youthful discovery — a stash of portfolios containing Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar covers tucked away inside a locked wardrobe — that he got an inkling that Benedetta Barzini was more than just the radical, outspoken, intellectual mother he’d been filming since he got his first camera at seven.
And with The Disappearance of My Mother Barrese sets out to create one final testament to his lifelong maternal subject, as the onetime feminist organizer and current university instructor (she teaches a course exploring the relationship between fashion and women’s role in society) is preparing to “disappear.” For Barzini has had enough of a culture that collects images but not experiences, and is set on leaving everyone and everything behind. Including her son.
Prior to the doc’s January 25th Sundance premiere in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Filmmaker spoke with the Italian director, who’s also an accomplished DP in the UK, about putting together his highly personal first feature.
Filmmaker: Benedetta’s a household name in Italy and in the modeling world, but she’s not really famous outside those realms. So how did you go about securing funding for the project?
Barrese: I have always avoided presenting the film as a film about a known or “famous” woman. It would have been perhaps convenient, but it would have attracted the wrong expectations and the wrong kind of money and support. I have always tried instead to frame the story as that of a woman who has reached the very last part of her life and is trying to find a way out — consistent and coherent with her ethical and political beliefs. I was also very interested in the power dynamic between the “muse” and the “artist.” Between who is behind the camera, and who is in front of the lens and gets somehow exploited for the purpose of creating an image. Of course when it came to this film, the fact that my mum was not only a model but also one of the iconic faces of the 1960s helped me to give strength to this argument and theme.
Overall, though, I have gotten support for the film through a very different route. I applied early on to great documentary writing and post-production workshops, like Archidoc, organized by the French film school La Fémis, and later to dok.incubator, as well as to a lot of documentary festival pitching forums. Those included MIA at Festa del Cinema di Roma, Hot Docs Deal Maker, Venice Production Bridge, and IDFA Forum Round Table Pitch. We were lucky enough to get selected to many of them — and never because my mother was supposedly “famous.”
In fact I learned early on that the very kernel of the story — what was of real universal interest — lay elsewhere. All of these workshops — together with the very first fund we secured from MIBAC (the Italian Ministry of Culture) — have been the first platforms that allowed my film to gain some credibility while also helping me to believe more in it, and to find the strength I needed to move on with it. It is my first film, and I felt very insecure about exposing my mother. I had to find a way of not being yet another exploiter of the muse — and this was tricky.
Filmmaker: Your mother is “anti-image” for many reasons but one that holds particular resonance for today’s smartphone culture is the idea that if you’re photographing you’re not living in the moment. Technology allows us to capture memories of experiences we never had (because we were too busy filming). How has your mother’s philosophy influenced your own approach to cinematography?
Barrese: My mother’s philosophy — and I am glad you describe it that way — influenced me to the core. It is part of my DNA. When it comes to cinematography the clash was inevitable. I have a naive conviction that images serve a potentially positive purpose. Despite the fact that today they are abused and viewers are not capable of reading through them, I believe that we can still use them to collect memory and create meaning.
This is why I love photography and I love filmmaking. My mum is not very interested in either, and she never got excited when I told her that I wanted to make films and work as a photographer and DP. This meant that I had to try even harder to understand what was my connection to making images, while also striving to achieve “beautiful” results. “Beauty” — although even “beauty” would need to be redefined — definitely has to do with what I instinctively perceive as a “good” and effective image. But also, in many ways, my mother has gotten me wrong. Because as I wondered why it is that I keep taking photos or making videos, I realized that a lot of the time I would start filming because I wasn’t capable of experiencing. Of living fully with whatever I had in front of me. Life was just overwhelming and I had to escape into a virtual dimension. I needed an emotional barrier between myself and the moment I was in.
And of course, as you say, this is definitely what happens with social media, as it offers an easy refuge where we can project some ectoplasm of ourselves that most of the time has nothing to do with our real experience. I would say that, thanks to my mum, my approach to cinematography is more critical, and more thought through.
Filmmaker: “Be here now” is such a ’60s notion, and your mother has been both a Marxist and a feminist at least since the ’70s. As much as your mom doesn’t want to talk about her modeling days, I can’t help but wonder who influenced her during this formative period. Did you ever reach out to interview those who knew her well during her NYC “hanging out with Warhol at The Factory” days?
Barrese: I was very curious about meeting those people and getting to know as much as I could about that past life of my mother, but I have been able to meet only a few. I met Gerard Malanga, poet and Andy Warhol’s assistant, who dedicated two collections of poems to my mother Benedetta. He was really great. I also met a few old friends and colleagues of my mum who knew her in the 1960s and later, in New York, Washington and Italy. People like the fashion designer Roberta Frymann, and the photographer Gale Frank-Adise, and also photographers Melvin Sokolsky, Kurt Markus and Gian Paolo Barbieri. I met, of course, the model Lauren Hutton (who appears in the film), and also the performer Penny Arcade, who too went through the Factory period and acted in a film by Andy Warhol. She’d never met my mother — and she didn’t even know who she was when I wrote her — but I was really fascinated by her. And in fact she shared with Benedetta very similar views about life, past, present and future.
What I found out by talking to these incredible people is that most of them have built a sort of “myth” of the glorious past they have been living through. To different degrees, they all believe that the 1960s and 1970s were a much better time, and that after that the world has been degrading into a worse and worse version of itself that leaves less and less space to the individual to live and express him or herself freely. Of course this is probably very true, but I appreciate the fact that my mum has always been very focused on her present and has always encouraged me to consider that the most interesting time in history is exactly the one we are living in now. As for my curiosity, which is also your curiosity, it is still very much unanswered. I would still like to know much more about what my mum was thinking back then, and who were her models and influences.
Filmmaker: Watching the film it struck me that, in a way, your mother was also trying to prepare you for the ultimate inevitable “leaving” — i.e., her death. And that perhaps (like it is for war journalists) using the camera was a way for you to shield yourself from an emotional toll. As hard as it was for your mother to consent to being filmed, was it in fact easier for you to keep the camera rolling?
Barrese: Yes, absolutely. Filming was a way to find a frame through which I could look at, and learn to accept, the harsh reality my mum was presenting me with. Which is that, ultimately, she is not eternal. I felt so powerless before making the film, and even if the passing of time will always win over us, I feel a little bit more empowered now that I have actually made the film. And despite the fact that it was a struggle, my mum and me have been able to share a lot of time together — much more than what would have been possible if we didn’t decide to work on a “shared” project.
Filmmaker: Has your mother seen the film? What’s been her reaction?
Barrese: As I was shooting I never re-watched the footage, and I avoided showing my mum anything till the very last moment. She was not interested, and I didn’t want for either her or me to be too aware of what we were doing. The whole process had to be a sort of mystery to remain pure.
Finally I showed her a rough cut in November 2018, when we had finally submitted to Sundance. I still wasn’t happy with it. The people around me — Valentina Cicogna, the amazing editor, and Filippo Macelloni, the patient producer — were tired and were trying to convince me that the film was pretty much closed. But actually I felt still in the middle of it. During the screening I was crumbling on the chair next to my mum, terrified that she would not like any of it. And in fact her reaction was surprising. No emotions, no tears, no big hugs at the end of the film. The first thing she told me was that she didn’t like the final song at all. So I rushed to think about an alternative because the ending had to be something we both agreed upon, it was our moment of collaboration. Then she suggested putting in a bit more archival footage from New York in the 1960s. According to her, the more the audience understood that she once was at the very top, the more they would appreciate the huge transformation she has gone through, and her current beliefs. And then she added, “That person on the screen — I like her. It is not me, but I like her a lot.” Which of course, at last, warmed my heart.