Dominikos Ignatiadis was just 16 years old when his mother, Gabriela, left his family, a fact that has haunted him for much of his adult life. After her death, he embarked on an intimate journey into the past, using her diary, her letters, and the recollections of her family and friends to try to unravel the mystery of her life.
“Gabriela – The German With the Bicycle” is Ignatiadis’ deeply personal account of trying to make peace with his mother. The story of a woman born in postwar Germany who had an overwhelming need to live, love, and matter, the film had its world premiere in the Newcomers International Competition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
Ignatiadis’ journey took him from Stuttgart, Germany to Alexandria, Greece, as he tried to answer the underlying question: “What kind of life is this?” The director spoke to Variety about whether or not “Gabriela” brought him any closer to solving that mystery.
What was the starting point that inspired this journey into your mother’s past?
I made the decision to make the film when I first started reading the diaries she left us with, as this was one of her final wishes before she died. It was shocking to me because until then I had completely wrong perceptions about my mother. They were dominated mostly by pain and anger about her. Suddenly I saw a woman who has been through hell from a tender age and felt overwhelmingly proud of her, absolutely grateful for the love she gave me until I was 16, when she left.
How much about your mother’s early life, relationships and travels were you familiar with before you began researching “Gabriela”? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Before I made the decision to make the film I knew only a few things, like the fact that she has two half-brothers and that her real father was killed in Russia. That she grew up with a strict stepfather who was in the S.S. army. But nothing else. Then while shooting and researching, I found out that my mother was a child of war, a product of an official program for the breeding of the Aryan race. She was the fruit of Elizabeth (her mother) and a German soldier who had not died in Russia after all but came back in 1954 after ten years of detention. I learned about the reformatories, my half-brother, her running away from home at the age of eight, the accusation to the child welfare services at the age of 14 of her stepfather’s abuse. The last one surprised me. How could a 14-year-old girl have the strength to go and report her stepfather for sexual abuse?
Several of your family members show their emotions on screen as they reflect on their relationship with your mother, but you rarely appear on camera. Did you consider playing a more active role on screen? Why didn’t you?
My distancing was deliberate, because I wanted to present my own mother in the film through her letters. To bring her back to the present and annihilate time. It was very difficult because I did three interviews where I was completely frozen. I didn’t really want to do it. I even had a panic attack during one of them. Difficult situations.
Considering her absence throughout much of your family’s life, do you feel like you got any closer to your mother while making this film? Do you better understand why she seemed so restless, and what she was searching for?
It was through the research for the film that I came to understand it more. Everything she did, she did only to receive the love that she so desperately longed for. The misconceptions I had until now are vanished and are replaced with an open heart. I am grateful to her.
Toward the end of the film, both your sister Eva and your half-brother Peer say they made peace with your mother and how her decisions impacted the family; Peer says that he “forgave” her. Did you reach the same conclusions?
I forgave her but more importantly, I managed to forgive myself. My anger made me so distant to her, for so many years, that I never managed to have a meaningful relationship with her. There was a lot of guilt and regret about that inside me. The real connection between us came along and with her death.