“This is a film about forgiveness,” Gayle Kirschenbaum’s new documentary Look at Us Now, Mother! announces at its start. But within 15 minutes we begin to feel that forgiveness is out of the question. How can we forgive Gayle’s mother Mildred Abramowitz Kirschenbaum for what can be delicately described as an abusive childhood? Cobbled together from home movies, family photos and archival footage, the film paints a portrait of Mildred as a petty, domineering tyrant. As a girl, Gayle was barraged with near endless insults about her looks—her Jewish hair was too frizzy and wild, her Jewish nose should be chopped away and reconstructed by a surgeon. Gayle recounts with horror an incident where the bra padding her mother forced her to wear when she didn’t “develop” properly floated out during a swimming lesson. Sometimes the emotional abuse would even turn physical: she once attacked Gayle after she stayed out too late one night with a boy.
Is it any wonder why Gayle left home at 17 years old? Or that her own relatives tear up when they remember her mistreatment? And then there’s Mildred herself, glibly responding “I don’t remember” whenever confronted about her parenting. This, of course, is a lie. Snatches of footage reveal a woman fully cognizant of her actions. “One of the reasons I might not have been nice to her was that she was a bitchy little girl growing up,” she monotones, even admitting later on that she had Mommie Dearest moments as a mother.
But Look at Us Now, Mother! is more than just a film about forgiveness, it is in itself an act of love. We watch Gayle and Mildred go to therapy, unraveling their pasts bit by bit. Slowly a new vision of Mildred emerges: brought up by a depressed, suicidal father, Mildred transplanted all of her anxieties over being a young Jewish woman in a White Anglo-Saxon world onto her daughter. The most astonishing thing about the documentary—and by extension Gayle’s strengths as a documentarian—is its ability to alternately inspire anger and empathy towards Mildred.
So can we forgive Mildred? It hardly seems to matter since, counter-intuitively, the film is really about Gayle and her ability to forgive. Much like Laura Bialis’ Rock in the Red Zone (2015), another documentary by a Jewish-American woman, Gayle uses the very act of documentary filmmaking as a means of self-discovery and self-definition. Through Look at Us Now, Mother! we see a woman challenging, exorcising and rehabilitating her demons.