In the weeks after our mother died, my brother told me a friend had welcomed him to “The Club.” It was, of course, a club whose members unequivocally rejected their membership. The only perk of involuntary induction was that we were in good company, circles in an infinite Venn diagram at the confluence of which was some shred of shared experience.
When Carlye Rubin and Katie Green met in a New York City coffee shop five years ago, they immediately bonded over their membership in The Club. But it was their belief in the power of documentary film that set their partnership in motion.
The result of that chance encounter, and of four years of filming and editing across three continents, is “The (Dead Mothers) Club”, which premieres tonight on HBO (Rosie O’Donnell is an executive producer). Rubin and Green focus their cameras on women who lost their mothers as children, adolescents or young adults. Letting us into the lives of three women revisiting loss at different stages of their lives, they hope to achieve a certain universality. Loss, after all, is an undeniable fact of living.
Carlye, you wrote in Film Courage about avoidance, and how making this film forced you to confront your past in a way you previously hadn’t.
Rubin: I think it was nagging at me for a long time before I met Kate that I wanted to make this film. Then I happened to meet her, and we were both in the right place and at the right time in our lives to be dealing with such a personal issue through the medium of film. I definitely was the ultimate avoider. Losing my mother was always on a need-to-know basis, and I used to joke that once someone knew, it was like they know too much — I have to get rid of them. So it is ironic that now we’ve sort of become the poster children — certainly riding on Hope Edelman’s coattails, who delved into this subject matter long before we did.
You were taken aback by the number of women interested in sharing their stories. How did you narrow it down to three?
Green: At first we thought we weren’t going to be able to get women to speak to us so candidly. But once we began putting the word out, we were kind of overwhelmed by the response. We were very keen to find women who were at the right place in their life to be telling their stories, and stories that we felt were very relevant. The three women we chose to continue filming over the course of three years were all at crossroads in their lives where it felt like they were meeting their mothers again in some sense. I think they all really complement each other, as well.
Carlye has also talked about coming to terms with the film being not just a labor of love but also a commercial project.
Rubin: We never focused on it being commercial, although we were keenly aware that it was exploring some very universal issues like loss, grief, maternal health, taking a proactive approach to your health. These were all things we were very focused on as opposed to trying to reach a wide audience. We felt if we were going to do it in a way that felt genuine and wasn’t in any way women romanticizing who their mothers were, we wanted to take a very honest look at this loss. Obviously, it’s a difficult subject, it’s taboo, it’s not really spoken about. But there are also aspects of it that are liberating and kind of turn you on this trajectory that you probably wouldn’t have gone on had you not experienced [loss] so early in your life.
Recently, virtual and in-the-flesh forums have emerged for honest conversations about loss. Do you think the way Americans deal with loss is changing?
Rubin: We talked about this with Abigail Jones (Newsweek). We’re not really sure the approach to “death culture,” if you want to use that term, has changed so much as technology. We’re living in a very communal, virtual world right now where everyone shares everything. I think that’s what’s shifted – not necessarily people’s attitudes, but their ability to share experiences. Also there’s an anonymity to it, to express yourself without feeling like you’re exposing yourself too much.
Katie, you’ve spoken about being an activist. How does this film fit into that framework?
Green: It’s about using what you do to try to draw attention to something. For me it was documentary filmmaking, and that was very much about finding a way for other people to share their stories. They’re telling their own story and you’re just providing that platform. We hope it’s a fair representation of these women’s stories and experiences, and that it feels true to them. We’re working on a new project now about juveniles in the prison system, and of course that has a much more political message. At the same time, as filmmakers we’re thinking, how can we make something relatable people can be engaged with if they haven’t gone through this experience? Before we were talking about women who lost their mothers, and now we’re looking at mothers who have lost their children. I think there’s always a marriage between what your film’s trying to say and how you try and relate that.
Eliza Berman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Hairpin, The Billfold, and Heeb Magazine, among other publications. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.