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‘Materna’ Director on Premiering a Film During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Guest Column)

'Materna' Director on Premiering a Film

On the night my first feature film, “Materna,” was set to world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on opening night of the program, I found myself instead watching Abbas Kiarostami’s film, “The Wind Will Carry Us,” at home.

“The Wind Will Carry Us” follows Behzad, a filmmaker traveling to a remote Kurdish village to document the death of a 100-year-old woman. The trouble is, she won’t die. Instead, Behzad spends much of the movie searching for cellphone reception, in a panic about the fate of his project. The experience forces him to slow down and learn to adjust to his new normal — the slower rhythms and traditions of the village. The relevance to the moment was obvious enough. But what the lesson was for me was not immediately clear.

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I was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a Russian immigrant family. My childhood home was a hotbed of struggle and strong opinions, and every conversation a matter of life and death. Growing up, I looked up to my older sister, who wanted to be an actor. Strong-willed, a rebel, and my hero, my sister took me to see my first movies. Yet my old-school immigrant father, just as willful, did not take lightly to the idea of his daughter pursuing acting as a career. It was then, at the age of 10, watching my sister and father fight about the utility of art, that film for me became a private love affair.

For most of my twenties, I sat alone in repertory movie theaters throughout New York City, falling in love with people I would never meet, preparing for the day I would make a film of my own. That “Materna” would be a New York story was perhaps inevitable. My narrative sense has been shaped by the city. Urban life can feel so communal and so isolating at the same time. We share the same subway cars, pass the same faces at our coffee shops. But do we ever come close to understanding how our neighbors think or feel? City life has always been about the curiosity provoked by the stranger on the street or subway platform — who is this person and what is their life? What do they do? Who do they love? “Materna” was borne of questions like these.

The writing of “Materna” began with private conversations between myself and my co-writers, Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina. At the time we were all at our most vulnerable, wanting to confront the most sensitive raw material of our lives in our work. In close creative collaboration with producers Emily McEvoy and Liz Cardenas, we adapted our own real-life family dramas, and both Jade and Assol went on to assume their own fictionalized roles on screen.

The film explores the inner lives of four women adrift in New York City, isolated and estranged from their loved ones. The women’s worlds are radically different, separated by race, culture, politics, religion and class. And yet, as their storylines intersect, we come to understand their shared isolation and their shared struggle for identity and connection.

The trajectories of the characters — moving from a place of isolation to a place of contact and connection — reflected our own personal trajectories and journeys in our own lives. Then, at the moment we were poised to share the film with audiences, the city that never stops moving came to a painful grinding halt, and the unprecedented events unfolding forced us back into isolation.

Now the pandemic requires us to be urban dwellers in seclusion, without the activating energy of our shared experience. All we have left is to imagine what is going on in peoples’ lives — in their hearts, and in their homes, behind closed doors.

Like Behzad in “The Wind Will Carry Us,” I will have to face the fate of my own project, and one way or another I will. But there are bigger problems we are all facing right now. Our city is in a lot of pain. The world is in a lot of pain.

The 20th century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas considered the meaning and value of face-to-face contact, writing that when you make face-to-face contact with someone it creates a moral and ethical relationship between you and the other person, that through contact, you become morally responsible to another. As an artist, I want to make work that helps people to connect with the other, with the stranger. As somebody who just made a movie about this very struggle to connect, I worry. Social distancing is a current necessity, but what are the long-term repercussions of combating a virus that encourages us to see the stranger as a monster who can kill you — and your grandmother, too.

At a time of extraordinary uncertainty, I look to the vision of life Abbas Kiarostami offers us in “The Wind Will Carry Us,” that living with the unknown and taking time to slow down — while devastating and difficult in ways that are unthinkable and impossible to put in words — may help to remind us of our vulnerability and interconnection.

The call for vulnerability and connection is at the core of what I tried to explore in my own film. If the women’s stories in “Materna” have any relevance to our current moment, it is because it they are stories of hunger, of the need for love and understanding, and the confinements posed by our own nature. These enduring human problems are revealed to us under stress, when the world feels, as it does now, like it is coming apart all around us. But the truth of who we are, and what we need, will remain when we put the pieces back together, when the subway restores its rumble, and the lights go down for the first Film Forum matinee. Cinema will remain — for me, and for so many — the place we go alone, and together — to learn how to live.

“Materna,” David Gutnik’s debut feature film, was awarded best actress and best cinematography at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, where Gutnik was also nominated for best new director. Gutnik is also the editor of several acclaimed features, including Christina Choe’s 2018 Sundance Award winner “Nancy.” “Materna” is a closely observed psychological portrait of four women, whose lives are bound together by an incident on the New York City subway.