“I Wanted to Protect Randi While Also Staying True to Her Experience”: Rivkah Beth Medow and Jen Rainin on Holding Moses
The unexpected (and largely unspoken) challenges of parenthood are rawly probed in Holding Moses, a moving documentary short directed by Rivkah Beth Medow and Jen Rainin. The film follows Randi Rader (Medow is in an open marriage; Rader is her long-term partner), a queer, non-binary dancer and Broadway performer who undergoes a personal reckoning when her son Moses is born with a rare genetic disorder of the 22nd chromosome. Via pre-recorded monologue, Rader shares the difficult journey of digging herself out of a deep depression and learning to love her son unconditionally. The candidness of her emotional trajectory may at first seem jarring—after all, our society overwhelmingly denigrates parents, especially mothers, who disclose wide-ranging parenting woes—but Rader’s frank confession speaks to a general lack of resources and support for those who struggle with the idea of not having the child they initially imagined.
Watch the 16-minute New Yorker short film above, which is currently shortlisted for an Academy Award. Below, find an interview with Medow and Rainin conducted via email, in which they share their personal connection to the film’s subjects, the difficulties (and unlikely benefits) of shooting during the pandemic and the arduous process of sourcing archival footage of Randi’s past performances.
Filmmaker: Rivkah, the experiences and emotions of your partner Randi are the focus of Holding Moses. What prompted you to center a loved one’s story for this project? Was there any difficulty in portraying a subject so close to your own personal life?
Medow: In early 2020, I was in the midst of a personal tragedy that I am still going through today. I wanted a guide to help me manage my grief and show up well for my family. Randi had told me about how she would lie on the earth to cry and move through her grief around Moses’s birth. Now I needed every detail of this story, so my very generous girlfriend let me record a three-hour conversation with her. As I was processing the story I had the idea to turn it into a film. I cut the audio down to about 20 minutes and sent it to Jen. When Jen listened to it, she was deeply moved and agreed. We spent the next year creating and finding footage to convey Randi’s inner journey.
From the start, this film was a collaboration with Randi. She’s been open to sharing her story and because we have a deep trust she was up to try anything we suggested. Like on my birthday, we were headed out to lunch, but a freak hail storm swept in so I grabbed my camera and asked her to take off her shoes and dance out on her deck. She thought I was a little nuts, but she said okay and that became such an important moment in the film. On the other hand, Randi shares such a raw personal journey and says some things that mothers are never supposed to share. We went around and around about including the most taboo revelations. She’s also rather ignorant when Moses is born and begins her journey to become less ableist. I wanted to protect Randi while also staying true to her experience, especially because it felt like other parents would relate if we were really honest. It was a delicate dance, but because of the trust we share and the communities we brought in to help us, it worked.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in hearing more about you and Jen’s collaboration as co-directors. What did each of you bring to this project creatively, and how did you each help shape the narrative and scope of the film?
Medow: Jen and I are highly collaborative. We started this project about a month into lockdown, so Jen wasn’t able to be on set during most of the filming. But we spoke every day and she reviewed all the footage as it came in. We had an extremely small crew, just me and our gifted cinematographer Clare Major. Jen and I would talk through what we wanted to get in a shoot, then we’d look through the footage and pull selects, comparing what jumped out to each of us. Because Jen was a little removed from the story, we each brought a different perspective to add to our shot lists and edits. Then we worked closely on the edit with the super talented Greg O’Toole to flesh out the arc of the story.
Filmmaker: Since Randi’s narration was recorded before you officially began shooting the project, I’m curious as to how you approached shooting and sourcing visuals to accompany their words. Why did certain moments—whether hiking or playing indoors—resonate as perfect companions to Randi’s voiceover? Also, the footage from their tenure on STOMP is very evocative, particularly when considering how dance factors into Randi’s relationship with Moses.
Rainin: Randi is a deeply kinesthetic person who experiences the world through her body. Moses’s birth changed the rhythms of her life, so we wanted our footage to show those rhythms. Knowing the audio track in advance let us be really specific about the film shoots we wanted to do, and since it was the pandemic we didn’t feel pressure to get all the filming done super fast.
Medow: I like to have some constraints or “rules” around what to film, otherwise it feels too amorphous and oceanic. We decided to use different seasons to evoke the passage of time as an essential layer of the visual storytelling. Northern California offers so much breadth and beauty. We couldn’t film with other people because of the pandemic, so we used these landscapes to help reflect Randi’s experience. When Randi talks about feeling as if she lost a child, she’s adrift on a dry grassy ocean overlook, and when she’s talking about finally connecting with a community of other mothers, she’s ensconced in a lush redwood forest.
The archival was critical to include because those were the places —STOMP and at Body Weather Farm—where Randi learned the lessons she used to trust herself and to “stretch farther.” Randi had an old VHS of her performing in STOMP but sourcing the Body Weather footage was another story. Randi told me I’d never find any, which just ensured that I’d spend way too many hours going down internet dance rabbit holes. The goddesses smiled on me the morning I found filmmaker Charles Steiner’s YouTube videos of his trip there in 1998. We also needed vérité of Randi, Moses and the whole family in the present-day to show what life is like with Moses now.
Then we needed a way into Randi’s inner emotional landscape. At first we thought, “Hey, Randi takes these 50 mile bike rides every weekend up and down hills through forests and farmland, dark and light—what a great metaphor!” Clare and I spent 2 days precariously balanced on our electric “follow bike” filming Randi biking before we landed on using Randi dancing as the window into her internal emotional landscape.
Along with her regular primes, Clare had some new Lensbaby lenses we wanted to try, so after Randi’s kids went to sleep, we went out onto the dance deck at night to play around. We really liked the effect and carried it over to a black box theater where Randi chalked up and STOMPed for a few hours. That shower door offered a perfect way to show how Randi was slipping out of her life in that moment. And the biggest gift was that hail storm.
Filmmaker: The pressure to be “perfect” is often heightened within queer families, and it’s very brave of Randi to speak so candidly about their parenting struggle with Moses. Were there any worries surrounding the production of the film regarding how people may react to this candid confession?
Rainin: Absolutely! And there still are! We spent many hours talking through whether to use what we refer to as “the hard words.” We consulted with adults with disabilities, parents of atypical children, and other LGBTQ+ families because we didn’t want to hurt anyone, but we also wanted to be honest about Randi’s experience.
Medow: This is why the film is structured as it is, with “the hard words” nested in the center. We needed to build enough compassion and complexity around Randi, show her loving and caring for Moses in really connected ways before you hear her share this confession. Then the second half of the film charts her growth toward change and becoming the person and parent she wanted to be.
Rainin: We know that in our society, it is not acceptable for mothers to express anything negative about parenting their children, beyond mild irritation. And for caregivers, it’s even more frowned upon to share the challenges and difficult impacts that taking care of another person can have on them outside of a support group. But we also know that if we are not allowed to express our truth, we will not be able to process it and move forward. Randi’s story shows her evolution along the spectrum of ableism that was possible because she was able to acknowledge her fleeting wish.
And because queer families are subject to public skepticism, many of us do feel the pressure to be perfect lest we let our community down and prove our opponents right. Especially for this reason, we are so grateful for Randi’s candor, and because of her candor, most viewers can’t help but fall in love with her. We wanted to ensure that Randi’s queerness was an aspect of her identity rather than the focus of the story. We saw a huge opportunity to widen and complexify the range of stories about LGBTQ+ people by featuring a queer, masculine woman who gives birth and goes through a life-changing journey in relationship to her beautiful, profoundly disabled son. Showing a compelling, loving single parent LGBTQ+ family makes more space for other queer families to exist beyond labels.
Filmmaker: The idea of “getting the child you imagined” is a prominent interrogation of Holding Moses, and it’s one that I think many parents grapple with, whether or not their children are disabled. There is certainly a societal notion that all parents must immediately love their children unconditionally, which simply isn’t the case for many. How do you hope that your film combats this simplistic narrative, and what resources do you recommend for parents in a similar position as Randi?
Rainin: The truth is that no parent gets the child they imagine. With Holding Moses we aim to draw people in so they become deeply invested in one woman’s story, then invite them to examine their own—and our culture’s—assumptions about how we talk about caregiving, having children with disabilities, journeys of ableism, queer families, and about what mothers look like. Our greatest hope for the film is to challenge assumptions and to create more space for conversations that help us grow individually and as a society. Alongside our festival run and New Yorker release, we’re getting powerful positive feedback from our ongoing community screenings with disability, rare disease and parenting groups where we participate in transformative conversations around the issues raised in the film. We’re also working with nonprofit organizations to get the film in front of medical students around the country to help medical professionals see their patients beyond their diagnoses, and to better understand and support the caregivers.
We learned so much from Randi about how she reached out to other parents in a similar position to resource herself. And we’ve been delighted to learn more about and partner with the incredibly dedicated organizations that exist to support families and fund research into rare diseases, like the Phelan-McDermid Foundation, Moebius Syndrome Foundation, AGENDA, and Connected Brain.