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“I Stayed in the Water for 10 Minutes, Risking Getting Frozen”: Director/DP Beniamino Barrese on The Disappearance of My Mother

Benedetta Barzini in The Disappearance of My Mother

Beniamino Barrese’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, was a famous Italian model from her discovery in 1963 to her retirement a decade later. Her photographers included Richard Avedon, and her career led her to spend time as part of Warhol’s Factory scene. Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother begins as Barzini tells her son she intends to disappear from the material world. Alarmed, Barrese’s response was to use the camera to both capture his mother and try to reconcile her tangled relationship with the power of imagery, acting as his own DP. Barrese answered questions via email about integrating 16 and 35mm and throwing himself into freezing water for a deleted scene.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Barrese: I have been working for a few years as a cinematographer previously to direct this film, and The Disappearance of My Mother is my first project as a director. I chose to shoot as much as I could by myself, to interfere as little as possible with the intimacy of what I needed to capture, but I also involved another cinematographer, Brian Fawcett, for some parts of the filming that had to be done on 16mm and 35mm. For those scenes, I wanted to be able to focus more fully on the directing, and experiencing letting go of the control over the “look” of the images (which is never easy when you are used to keeping your eye on the camera). I have been a friend of Brian’s for a long time, so I knew he would understand my point of view and vision, while also bringing his amazing eye and talent, so as to get the best image possible in the often rushed and tricky settings we found ourselves shooting in.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Barrese: One of the questions behind the film has to do with the meaning and power of images. Therefore, the challenge was how to effectively reflect this abstract theme in the type of cinematography used in the different sections of the story. Throughout the doc my character struggles to prove to my mum (who, having been a model, is somehow a “victim” of the world of images) that there can be also “good” kinds of images, ones that have a positive impact on our lives. This is why, next to the footage I shot with a mini-DV as I was a teenager and the “harsh” digital footage shot of her in the present (typically consisting of me running after her and clashing against her resistance to get filmed), I have decided to add bits of filming shot on celluloid film. These 16 and 35 mm sequences are connected to revisited memories of the past and to imaginative projections of my mother’s future, and the specific look of film is a hint towards a different level of visual storytelling and towards an altogether different conception of the image, seen as something sacred, powerful, meaningful and unique.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Barrese: A few films had a huge impact in the way I conceived my documentary. In between them, I can list for sure Rosetta, by the Dardenne brothers, Nostalgia For the Light by Patricio Guzmán, Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley, Notes on Blindness by James Spinney and Peter Middleton, Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette, Whores’ Glory by Michael Glawogger, Casting JonBenet by Kitty Green. To all these filmmakers (and many more…), I say the deepest thank you as they will continue to inspire me for much much longer. I know that.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Barrese: Some of the ideas needed more budget and means (and experience too!) than what I had available. Besides, my mother wasn’t always accessible—she really doesn’t like to be filmed. So, often, I had to simplify a lot of the ideas I had in mind in order to accommodate what she actually agreed to do. It took me a long time to convince the rest of my team that choosing film (especially when it came to 35mm!) wasn’t a silly and spoiled request, but actually something inherently part of the story we were trying to tell. I had to be annoying, but I finally made it and I am very happy of that.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Barrese: The choice of my main camera (the Sony F7S) was dictated mainly by what I could afford. I managed to secure a deal for renting it from a rental company which ended up being a sponsor of the film. Luckily, it turned out to be a good camera, because it is quite light. This allowed me to shoot by myself for long days, often handheld, moving from location to location, carrying along the minimum equipment possible. I also liked how it allowed me to shoot in low light, using practicals at home and available light in day interiors.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Barrese: I was always very careful at the time of the day I would shoot each scene, and I would try to always control the available light to obtain the best possible effect. I wanted to show my mumas beautifully as I could—and, of course, lighting is key to that. I decided to set the majority of the story in daylight, filming mainly in the morning when I knew I could count on the most amount of light. There are only a few night scenes in the film, and they are all quite emotional. At night, with the interior tungsten light, the atmosphere changes completely, and it becomes more mysterious and more charged with emotions. At night I would light with the available practicals, really quickly, mainly deciding what to keep on and what to switch off.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Barrese: It was a scene that didn’t end up in the cut. It consisted of throwing myself in the sea and falling down towards the bottom. We shot it in December 2017. The sea was ice cold and so milky the operator couldn’t see me at all. I stayed in the water for 10 minutes, risking getting frozen. My mum should have thrown herself in the water also, but that would have been definitely too much!

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Barrese: Because the digital process means that you shoot a very flat and colorless image, it was great to eventually work in the color grade to bring to life the life and final look of the film. I wanted to find a specific distinctive color look for the present, the past and the fiction inserts on 35mm—but the collaboration with colorist Alessandro Pelliccia from Augustus Color in Rome was in itself a really creative process which brought a lot to the table, and the result was a surprise for me as well.

TECH BOX

Film Title: The Disappearance of My Mother
Camera: Sony F7S, Canon C300, Arri SR3, Arricam LIT LDS
Lenses: P + S Technick
Lighting: available light
Processing: Digital – film scanning
Color Grading: at Augustus Color on DaVinci Resolve

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