The Heart of a Mother – Interview with Filmmakers Evelyne & Gabriela Tollman
Two years ago, Gabriela Tollman’s son Charlie was born prematurely. After 11 days, he lost his fight to overcome E. coli. As the pain shattered her mother’s heart, she had no idea how that pain echoed out into the hearts of millions of mothers each year who have a child die. The grief, self-blame and physical ailments she suffered were the beginning of a journey that has brought her to where she is today: Kickstarting a feature film to raise $30K to put the story and the hope and the healing she has found in front of audiences. With her sister, Evelyne Werzowa, her partner in writing, producing and acting in “Secrets of an Unborn Child“, Gabriela stands strong for mothers (and fathers and siblings, too) who miss “the one who was supposed to still be part of our family.”
In Secrets Of An Unborn Child the lives of two sisters intersect. Clare loses her baby and Anna, in the midst of an emotional crisis, inadvertently abandons her child. The film follows the two sisters as they overcome their worst fears and help each other rebuild their lives.
It isn’t everyday that you meet women filmmakers who have the raw courage to crack open their hearts and so intimately reveal very personal pain. Gabriella and Evie, as she’s called, are two mothers (yes, they both have 6-year-old boys) who are passionate about letting the grace of learning to let go, reach out and gently touch the souls of those who are afraid that if they do let go, they’ll lose their child forever. Experienced filmmakers, Gabriela and Evie embrace film as a pathway to bless the human spirit. If you are or know a mother who has lost a child to illness, injury, war, violence, accident, please read and share this post. And know, that in your journey, you are not alone.
And if you are a mother who is blessed with a child, then join us in celebrating life, resiliency and the power of the human heart.
Tell me the story of how you each became filmmakers.
Gabriela: Evelyne and I have been acting in and writing plays since we were six years old. We grew up under Apartheid in South Africa. Freedom of speech was sanctioned. Film was a safe place to express ourselves, to escape the lies and to tell the truth. After immigrating Evelyne went on to theatre school at LACC and studied Screen Writing at the Writers’ Bootcamp in Los Angeles. Evelyne has directed one short film and hopes to direct more in the future. I attended UCLA as a theater student, but was always drawn to the Film department. After graduating UCLA I learned Film Editing and I wrote, acted in and directed my first short film THE LAST GUNSHOT about the social implications of Apartheid. It screened in over 30 festivals including the Cannes Short Film Corner. After that I was hooked. I have directed over ten short films since then. They have played in festivals all over the world including Sundance, and won several awards. I am very excited to be making my first feature film with Evelyne.
What part of filmmaking is “the energy that lights you up” for you?
Gabriela: I love the entire process of making a film from writing to filming and editing. I also love the collaborative process of filmmaking. I see film as a spiritual medium. One where you distill an aspect of the human experience, examine, it, live with it, experience it and grow from it. I love that is a medium that combines all other mediums such as writing, painting, acting, editing, etc. I also love that it allows the audience to experience a world through images. I have always likened film to hypnosis as it affects people on a deep subconscious level. That to me is very powerful.
Tell us about your journey with Secrets of an Unborn Child. This is a very personal project for you, one that has required you to be vulnerable and share your own grief and journey via the two protagonists – where did you find it in your soul to bring this personal pain out into a very public light?
Gabriela: I have always worked from personal experience in my films. As a South African immigrant I grew up during Apartheid and I witnessed a lot of fear and violence. My first short film THE LAST GUNSHOT explored these themes and the familial implications of Apartheid. In some of my other short films I’ve explored themes of intimacy, isolation and violence against women. SECRETS OF AN UNBORN CHILD was motivated by a real experience I had when due to complications I gave birth to my baby at 7 months. He struggled to survive, but didn’t. It was a painful and difficult experience. I started to write the script with Evelyne. I was compelled to explore the theme of survival after the loss of a loved one. Writing this project has helped me heal. Finding an outlet for pain has always helped me feel like less of a victim and less vulnerable. The pain I felt after losing my baby was overwhelming. I hope that this project can help those experiencing loss feel less alone; and let them know that some day they will feel happy and alive again.
Evelyne: When Charlie was born too early, with a terrible infection, they tried everything: blood transfusions and a life support machine. After just 11 days the doctors told them it was hopeless. They were faced with a very hard decision. They decided to turn off the machine. His hands went into Mudra as if giving thanks to his parents for letting him go. Gaby suffered from depression, physical ailments and negative thoughts, that maybe it was her fault somehow. And then we began to write together. Write about her struggle, the negative voices that plagued her. The guilt that somehow she may have caused this. The voices she longed to hear began, “Mommy, I’m OK. It wasn’t your fault.”
This film is the story we want to tell of two sisters who come together to help each other. The sister Anna, who I play in the film, is lost. Stuck in the role that so many parents get into. Full of frustration, anger, overwhelmed at parenting and her child. She has an emotional breakdown and walks away from her small son, leaving him in a boiling hot car. We wanted to tell the story about what it means to love and loose. What is means to make bad decisions, and the road back to love.
What is your dream for this film? What do you want it to do in the world?
Evelyne: Our dream for the film is that it reaches a wide audience of people who it can inspire and help. Three million babies die each year. This is more common than we know. It is not talked about a lot. How can you heal from loss? What does it do to a marriage, etc. And then on the flip side there are so many parents who don’t realize having a child is a gift. There is a staggering amount of child abuse and children being forgotten in automobiles each year. I want people to realize how lucky they are and that we all have an incredible ability to find god, love, and heal if you dare.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing the script? The most rewarding?
Gabriela: The most challenging part for me was honoring the truth of my experience and not backing away from it. Having the guts to communicate the depth of the anxiety, fear and sadness I was experiencing. The most rewarding for me was that as I healed, my character healed. The more Clare listens to her own voice, meditates and gets in touch with that deeper part of herself the more rewarding the process became.
Evelyne: The most challenging thing for me was making sure I did not dismiss or downplay what this experience was like for Gabriela. The pain, the fear of physical ailments manifesting and the voices she heard calling her from another place were all real. Allowing her to put that on the page then making sure they pushed against Anna (my character) in the film. Anna is the opposite of Clare (Gabriela’s character) she pretends everything is OK. She can’t face the pain inside and tries to deny what she has done to her own child. The two sisters ultimately push each other to face their darkness. I also wanted to make the story is engaging for everyone, not just those who have experienced loss. It is about being open to Consciousness or God and your subconscious. To listen, to hear, really hear your soul. Everyone can relate to this. How am I alive, really alive? How do I love? And do I have the courage to step into being alive, not live my life on the outside.
Even though the pain of your characters is based on your own, your characters have a life of their own and they are not you – what has it been like working with them? What have Clare and Anna taught you? How have they surprised you?
Evelyne and Gabriela: What a beautiful question. Writing Clare has taught us that we all have a process that helps us heal. As a society we can be so judgmental when it comes to healing and death. We live in a society that says “get on with it, put on a happy face.” The sisters’ father in the film, Monty, tells Clare “Come on, get on with it; people lose babies all the time.” Clare taught us that every phase of life has a purpose. That we learn from every experience. That pain can be an incredible teacher. We don’t need pain to grow, but if you are faced with it don’t deny it. Clare teaches us not to run from pain just because it is uncomfortable. Be with it, connect with it, connect with yourself, be still, that’s when true healing can occur.
Anna, on the other hand, reminds us to listen. She gets too stressed, too flooded by life that she can’t relax when her child is talking about birds that can talk. She is driving, lost in frenzy; then leaves her screaming child in a boiling hot car. Anna is who we all can become if we don’t stop, breath and take life in. We think of her often in the frenzy of life.
Was there a point where you nearly gave up on this film? If so, what motivated you to keep going?
Evelyne and Gabriela: Sometimes Gabriela worried that reliving the story, the trauma would not be good for her health and psyche, but it has been just the opposite. This journey has given her energy to inspire others, to share her journey. Healing is a process, it doesn’t happen over night. What definitely kept us going is that getting this story out there can help others not feel so alone.
How has this film affected your relationship as sisters?
Evelyne and Gabriela: Working on the film has helped us tremendously. We compliment each other. Gabriela is not afraid to go to the dark places and Evelyne likes to find the humor and irony. There is a lot of that in the script and we laugh alot at ourselves and at our characters.
How does your collaboration work?
Evelyne and Gabriela: We will talk about a scene, what we’re trying to say in it and then one of us will usually take a stab at it and the other one will then do the rewrite. Gabriela wrote all the internal dialogue and I would say “love it, or, wow, you went too far with that!” We help stretch each other. Some scenes we wrote five times. For example, we wanted to give the character Michael (Clare’s husband) a voice, about how he feels with the loss. We tried everything and a physical action seemed to work best. It’s a painful, beautiful gesture that you can’t say with words.
Where are you at in your own spiritual journeys? What does “faith” mean to you now?
Gabriela: My spiritual life deepened immensely after the loss of my baby. I tried desperately to understand why. I sought out the books of Louise Hay, which helped me. I read MANY MASTER, MANY LIVES by Brian Weiss. This book changed my life. It helped me understand the world in a different way. It helped me understand we truly are all connected and that we are all here to learn and grow. That nothing is random and life really is supposed to be full of joy. Another person that affected me deeply and helped me heal is Marianne Williamson. I began going to her talks on Monday nights. I felt so lucky to meet her, she was so open to me and really helped me. I began following and studying A COURSE IN MIRACLES. I continue to do the lessons each day. I really have learned that so much about our life is what we think; that we do have control over our thoughts and our mind. That each day, each minute, we can chose between love and feeling connected to something bigger, brighter and more beautiful or fear.
Evelyne: As an artist, as a mother, as a wife I think you get tested a lot. We’ll, I do. I come up against my own beliefs opposed to others’ beliefs. And then I have to let go and breathe. We’re all in this together. I remind myself to come from love, and I meditate, find the quiet, so I can hear the silence, the soul, God, whatever you want to call it. I’ve seen miracles and magic in my own life that gives me faith. My own son was diagnosed with Legg Perthes disease. I don’t think this is a random thing, I think it can be a gift for all of us, a gift we can give others. The night of my son’s diagnosis I felt an energy come into my room, spin around my son and that’s when I knew he would be okay. The world of healing came and found me. I didn’t seek it out, it found me. But that’s another story. On the day we said goodbye to Gabriela’s baby, Charlie, his hands went into mudra. I saw that as a sign he was going back to God and that blew me away. You can’t make that stuff up. If you’re open you can see it and there have been more miracles I have witnessed.
What role does fear and faith play in your creative life?
Gabriela: Creativity has always been an act of faith for me. When I feel any fear or negativity creep in I write about it or create something about it and that diminishes the fear. I think that’s why making this film continues to be so cathartic for me; it helped get me out of my fear.
Evelyne: I feel blessed, I know it sounds corny or crazy, but often when I write, it just comes through me. Later I read the draft of a script I’m working on and I think “How did I write that?” it just came through me.
How is it to be a mom and a writer and filmmaker and actresses?
Evelyne: Out boys are best friends. We are very lucky. We have play dates, they sword fight and we edit together. We have passionate conversations and our boys love being a part of it. The other day my son said to me” “Mommy, you talk to Auntie Gabriela five times a day. You have a lot to talk about!”
We are playing Clare and Anna in the film. We thought about maybe casting other actresses, but this film is tailor made for us. As ex-pats from South Africa, we also deal with violence in the film and motherhood. We have been acting together since we were little and this is a natural extension of that.
What is it like for you to be the scriptwriter and also the actress who must embody that character?
Evelyne: It’s wonderful; we know these characters so well. We have lived with them for such a long time. We’ve done writing and acting exercises with them, written their dreams, their best childhood memories and their secrets. It’s also intense to share the shadow side, but we feel so safe working together. We have that sister bond where we can just give each other a look and we know what the other is thinking. We are both huge Ingmar Bergman fans. This is our Persona, our homage to Bergman.
Learn More and Support “Secrets of an Unborn Child” at Kickstarter.
Follow on Twitter: @Unbornchildmv
View Gabriela Tollman’s website at http://www.gabrielatollman.com