On a cold night on a New York subway, an agitated man starts yelling. The women sitting near him clock his outburst with unease. He mutters to one of them, “You remind me of my mother… You’re a sick puppy, aren’t ya?” Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of an encounter that goes downhill quickly.
This is the moment at the center of “Materna,” a new film which tells the stories of four New York women, each at a difficult crossroads in her life, and the moment their paths intersect on the train. The film was directed by Jewish American director David Gutnik, and was co-written by Gutnik and two of the lead actresses, Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina. It made its premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival (which was delayed until 2021 because of COVID-19), and received the festival’s prize for Best Actress (to Abdullina) and Best Cinematography.
Each quarter of the film does a deep dive into one of the women’s lives: Jean (played by an understated and restrained Kate Lyn Sheil) is a tech entrepreneur living an isolated life in a fancy loft apartment, struggling with her mother and the pressures to become a mother herself; Mona (Eshete) is an actress dealing with the fallout of leaving her religious community and the strain her departure has put on her relationship with her mother, who is still a Jehovah’s Witness; Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) is a conservative, Jewish stay-at-home mom who has an explosive political fight with her lefty documentarian younger brother Gabe (Rory Culkin); Perizad (Assol Abdullina) travels home to Kyrgyzstan to reckon with the mysterious death of her uncle. The film grapples with themes of loneliness, family suffering, grief and mother-child relationships, as each woman finds herself fighting for her own point of view in a moment of deep emotional pain.
I spoke to director David Gutnik about the film, his upbringing in Brooklyn as the child of Jewish political refugees from the former Soviet Union, and what it was like filming on the New York subway in the dead of winter.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell me about where the film came from? What is its origin story?
I was at a really vulnerable place in my life and I was looking to be more vulnerable and more honest and more direct in my life and in my work. I’d been talking to [co-writers] Jade [Eshete] and Assol [Abdullina] separately; they were going through some of their own stuff and we all kind of bonded over our shared personal struggles. We wanted to take that raw material and turn it into a film. The scripts started in conversation, just really in confiding in each other.
These are disparate stories of very different people’s lives and the movie comes together in the contrast and connection between these different worlds. How did you decide on these stories?
It was more organic than that – there wasn’t any kind of pre-design. I met Jade when I was sitting in on her acting class and we had a friendship. And I met Assol through the Russian-speaking community [Assol’s family is from Kyrgyzstan, while David’s family emigrated from the former Soviet Union]. We just happened to be having, separately, very similar conversations, and some of the things that Assol was talking about really struck a chord with me. Even if it’s buried, I think pain connects people. Maybe by being friends or collaborators we might be able to fix ourselves, or heal, or grow! And so it really started from that place, and then the more these conversations evolved separately, the more they turned into these story ideas and script ideas. And the stories started to gravitate to each other. But we didn’t know exactly what form they would take at the start.
Is the story of the Jewish characters, Ruth and Gabe, based on your own experience?
I do have an older sister, and she’s my hero. There are different degrees of autobiographical storytelling. There’s straight autobiography and then there are stories that are less one-to-one. So the movie kind of lives in the second kind of space – it may not be about these specific family issues, but it’s also about loneliness, isolation, being in New York, and what it’s like to feel this incredible tension between always being alone with your stuff and also being in these public spaces where you feel connected but really not connected at the same time.
That feels even more relevant now than it did when you made the film, before the pandemic.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because people keep saying to me, “This is just like nowand how isolated we all are!” And you know, the crazy thing is that we made this before the pandemic! So it’s like, hmm, maybe [before the pandemic] we were a little more isolated than we thought we were!
Can you tell me about how you grew up?
My family is from the former Soviet Union. They came here from the Ukraine in the ‘80s with my sister, and then I was born here. They came as political refugees and as Jewish refugees. They couldn’t really practice there because at the time it wasn’t legal to be a publicly practicing Jew or really have any kind of religious practice. I went to Jewish day school and grew up in South Brooklyn, but we moved around a lot because my parents were new immigrants.
So you’re a real New Yorker – it makes sense because this is such a New York movie. The story of the Jewish characters is a difficult one. It’s about deep political divides and the racism and homophobia that’s bubbling right under the surface. Can you tell me about this story?
I think this came from a place of me being very familiar with what it’s like to have a heated political conversation at the dinner table. My family is very political. Coming as political refugees from the former Soviet Union is life-altering – it’s leaving people behind. It’s a traumatic experience. It’s also wonderful, full of hope and optimism, but it’s incredibly hard. So you kind of have to lean into your ideas, to the certainty of your ideas, to protect you. To inoculate you from the pain of the experience and the loss of an ideology. So every political conversation growing up was really like a matter of life and death. It was never casual.
And now, because of how polarized our politics and our culture are, it’s like nothing is safe. No topic is safe from being co-opted by the political conversation. Everything is about where it falls within the political wars. So yeah, these are things that are really happening in families. People feel some kind of safety to let it all out with their family members, because it’s a lot harder to let it out with the rest of the world because the stakes are higher. You can lose friends, jobs, livelihoods.
How did the Jewishness of the characters inform Ruth and Gabe’s story?
I think in Judaism there’s a lot of room for different kinds of identification – cultural, religious, around Israel – and so that’s going to lead to a lot of potential conflict, especially within families. And there’s this history of persecution, a history of being boxed out and having real life or death consequences. You know, my grandparents were in ghettos and the Holocaust. So when we’re talking about these American systemic injustices and [the characters] are talking about where they stand in that debate, it felt appropriate, especially given my background, to put the onus of responsibility on this Jewish family. You know, that one of the characters thinks the other one should know better, and the other character thinks… what she thinks. And watching that argument play out in a way that is very familiar. It wasn’t based on a real conversation in my family, it’s more like these were arguments and debates that were very alive to me.
You shot both in Kyrgyzstan and in the New York subway. Which was harder? I’ve heard horror stories about filming in the New York subway!
Shooting the subway, by far, was the harder experience. Shooting Kyrgyzstan was a dream. Shooting on the subway was a nightmare. I worked with the actors and local crew in Kyrgyzstan in Russian, which I’d never done before. For the subway, we were shooting a movie on a micro-micro budget, and we couldn’t afford to shoot in one of these studio fake subway type things. So… my producers are gonna yell at me after this, but we had to steal it. We shot overnight in the subway for a full night. You still have to give the cast and crew time to go to the bathroom, so we’d all get off the subway in the dead of winter at 3 o’clock in the morning. And then you have to wait for the next subway to come in 30 minutes, and there are different styles of subway cars. So the one that comes you’d better hope is the right one, because if not you have to wait another 30 minutes! I definitely had some PTSD every time I would go on the train for the next couple months. Whereas, with Kyrgyzstan, I long to go back. We’re writing another film that’s set there.
Who were some of your filmmaker references?
For the first section, we were talking a lot about Brian de Palma. For the middle two stories, John Cassavetes was a key touchstone – “Woman Under the Influence” and “Opening Night.” And for the final section in Kyrgyzstan, we were watching Ozu on loop. Probably the most important filmmaker was early Lynn Ramsay – how to turn this incredibly close psychic, emotional observation into dramatic action. How to turn that interiority into plot drive was sort of the overarching goal for each of them.
“Materna” can be viewed as of today, August 10, at Cinema Village in New York, Lumiere Cinema in LA, and online on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.