Writor & Producer Sumner Burstyn embodies her films: she’s smart, humble & kind. She made This Way of Life with her husband Director Tom Burstyn in 2009 and that’s the very first Kiwi film I saw when I got here. Like many Kiwi people, I fell in love with the freedom the film endorses and with the beauty of the wild that Peter, Colleen and their 5 children would never sacrifice to a “normal” conventional life. I also found Tom’s and Sumner’s cinematic process very impressive: how could they be so close to the family?
The extraordinary productive couple comes back with another moving and very special story: they give us a special insight into the life of Yolanda and Joseph Sonnabend. One is a true artist (Yolanda Sonnabend is a painter and a set and costume designer for the Royal Ballet in London). The other a well-known scientist (Joseph Sonnabend is a groundbreaking doctor who has been deeply involved in AIDS research). They’re brother and sister and age has forced them to live back together. How do they deal with there “essential” differences?
Some Kind of Love which has recently been presented at the New Zealand International Film Festival, is in the same vein as This Way of Life. It’s cleverly built and deeply human. Sumner Burstyn explains me here how they work together with their husband (he is director, she is writer and producer) and shares her views on art and documentary making.
When Sally Met Welly: Some Kind of Love is very different from This Way of Life, but it has the same core, it’s about love.
Sumner Burstyn: We’re in the process of making four films on the four Greek ideals of Love. The first one This Way of Life was about Family, the second one, Some Kind of Love, is about unconditional love. The next one we will do is about romantic love and then brotherly love after that.
Some Kind of Love is a film about unconditional love. It’s about an artist and her brother, who is a scientist, and their very fractured relationship.
The film is set in a house that they’ve owned jointly for 50 years but where Yolanda has lived alone until now. Everything about Yolanda’s life is contained within the house. It’s a small mansion in London in a very wealthy area. But the house has never been renovated and it’s barely been cleaned in 50 years! There is no line between life and creativity. Yolanda is a person. Yolanda is an artist. It’s the same thing.
W.S.M.W: The unconditional love in this case would be her unconditional love for art?
S.B.: Absolutely; and it’s also Joseph’s unconditional love for her. As she becomes unwell during the process in which the film is made in, he moves in. He cares for her when he doesn’t like or respect her. He says that it’s about something much more reliable than love. It’s about duty. It’s his version of what that means.
W.S.M.W: Does it mean that unconditional love is a form of duty? For Yolanda is it a duty to be an artist?
S.B.: I guess it is. It’s very difficult for a woman of her age to be an artist for her entire life, particularly a that time. There were other roles for women, very well laid-out roles which she defied through her devotion to art.
It’s very clear to Joseph that he doesn’t love his sister at all, that he doesn’t even like her, but it’s his duty to care for her. That caring is truly a form of love because his motivation is for her well-being.
W.S.M.W: When you were shooting This Way of Life, did you already have in mind the project to shoot four movies?
S.B.: No. It’s a project that is building itself. It was really after we were in the process of editing Some Kind Of Love that we understood that we had made this two films which are very different but joined by this theme. We were also starting to create the one we are about to start making called A Night of Tragedy and Despair and we understood that this was a film about romantic love – a very quirky kind of romantic love certainly; again a couple, but a very unconventional couple.
W.S.M.W: How were you introduced to Yolanda and Joseph?
S.B.: They are Tom’s step aunt and uncle. Tom’s grandmother married their father. She married a number of husbands and buried a number of husbands… (stealing money from each one). It’s not particularly easy relationship. So, at the end of Joseph’s and Yolanda’s lives, the only thing that this odd couple has is their hatred for their long-dead stepmother. They put some of this hatred on Tom, without meaning to. They just can’t help it.
W.S.M.W: So when did Tom decided to make a film and not only to talk about this subject with them?
S.B.: We decided we would make a film about Yolanda as an artist 10 years ago, but we only started it 3 years ago now.
W.S.M.W: You won the Hot Docs pitching competition with this movie a couple of years ago. How did you pitch the subject at the Hot Docs?
S.B.: We just made a “whip teaser” from the footage we had already shot at that time. It was the same theme, of Yolanda and Joseph being together but we fleshed it up a lot more, then we did another shoot and we came up with some new themes.
You know, this kind of documentaries is very special, that’s why we struggle to find funding. The only funding we are really able to get is in post-production, after we’ve invested a lot of our own money, because we can’t write a script. We’re not telling a straight story, we’re telling a human story, which is twisted and turned, gnarled up with human emotion. It changes as you follow the story, never going in a linear way. We hope one day producers will trust us as filmmakers and say “We believe you’ll find a story in this idea”, but that hasn’t happened so far.
W.S.M.W: How did you proceed as a writer to tackle with a subject that isn’t defined?
S.B.: Writing is about construction. Our documentary making is the same thing as writing novels, is just about constructing a story. I’m very proud of my writing on this film because the narration, that runs through it and that Tom speaks, reflects the images, it doesn’t lead the story. Sometimes directors use narration to fill in the gaps. The narration in Some Kind of Love is just a reflection on the story. I wrote it during the editing and I was very careful not to lead it. There were many versions, many ways that we tried to do that. It took a long time to get to that final process.
W.S.M.W: How long did you shoot? This Way of Life took you more than four years…
S.B.: This one was over 3 years. The one we’re starting now will take at least three years to shoot.
W.S.M.W: Is that the time you need to create empathy, to make this connection between the characters you present and the audience?
S.B.: Yes. Our films are intimate and human. They are small but they tell much bigger stories.
W.S.M.W: Did Tom have the idea to develop his relationship with his brother from the beginning?
S.B.: No, he didn’t. It came during the filming where Joseph kept challenging him. There is a little moment in the film where we hear one of the times when he challenges him about his relationship with his brother, which is very fraught. Tom’s brother is like Joseph: very rational. He is a scientist, the same as Joseph was, and Tom is an artist. You know, they just don’t understand each other. So, it made sense to draw this parallel.
The other problem was, we made a big mistake as documentary filmmaker: we had inserted ourselves into the story. We were in there, and during the filming it was impossible to do anything else: there was a lot of physical caring that Yolanda required, so to film her required filming me. She wouldn’t answer questions at all, we could only talk to her in a conversation. Joseph would not be interviewed except as an argument. He demanded debate about everything. Tom, who was working with Joseph as I was working much more with Yolanda, was also involved. We could have cut ourselves out but it would have been against the documentary very disingenuous process, creating a fake construct. We purposely kept ourselves in and then realised that we were actually in the story at a much deeper level than we have originally thought. We also went back and found all the old footage [editor’s note: footage from Tom’s childhood], realising that this memory also was relevant.
W.S.M.W: This seems like a very personal journey for your husband…
S.B.: In terms of Tom’s personal journey, he has a relationship with his brother now, which he didn’t have before. It’s not a great relationship but it’s a relationship.
W.S.M.W: So it means that the debate between art VS science is something that could be overcome? that you could go beyond?
S.B.: I don’t think you can in any true deep way, but you can certainly find a bridge across it.
W.S.M.W: So thanks to this film, in a way, Tom could find this bridge. Did you find something about yourself in observing Yolanda and her relationship to art?
S.B.: Not so much for me because Yolanda required a lot a physical care while we were shooting. That’s not a difficult thing for me, I have 5 children, Tom’s parents lived with us when they were dying, they were holocaust survivors. This was not an unusual position for me to be in, but still, it’s challenging. When in your head you’re going to do your work, which is filmmaking, and instead you step beyond your role as a filmmaker into your true self as a carer, it’s very demanding.
W.S.M.W: As I understood, there is no balance between work and life in Yolanda’s life. How do you deal with that yourself with your husband?
S.B.: We don’t have a work/life balance at all. We’re creative, and Yolanda and Joseph are great examples of that: neither of them think of retirement. It’s such a strange idea because it doesn’t work like that. Your work, who you are and what you do is the same thing. Neither of us would ever retire either. Our lives are about our creativity.
W.S.M.W: In the case of Joseph and Yolanda, it seems that they made a sacrifice of their private life and of family. It’s not what you did… What I mean is how can you succeed in being an artist and still having a family?
S.B.: They made a huge sacrifice, and no, that’s not what I did.
It’s very difficult when you have a family because there is no place for being selfish, and to be a true artist you need to be profoundly selfish. It is the condition of great artistic endeavour. That’s a compromise you just have to accept, and the benefits are great. That’s some of what the film is about: Yolanda has suffered because of that commitment to art, and the fact that as a society we don’t acknowledge that commitment to art has a huge negative consequence. There is no safety for her. It’s difficult.
She was completely dedicated. She would have been a terrible parent because the art would have come before the parenting. When she was young, her artistic genius was recognized very early and her father said to her: you can be a wife and mother, or an artist. Pick one. That’s pretty profound and that is actually how it was. She chose art.
W.S.M.W: But you are, personally, a very different example of this. So it means that you can still do both.
S.B.: You can do both but you can’t have the fullness of both. My kids are writers and have books published. One is a great artist. They’ve got kids and they struggle with the same things. Really what it’s about is headspace, you give up the room in your brain that you need to absolutely focus on creativity because it gets invading by the demands and needs of children. It takes a long time to get yourself back. You can’t have both.
W.S.M.W: Were you for example creating when you had children or did you just stop creating for a while?
S.B.: You always do, but you create in a different way. The intensity required to write a book, I was unable to have it while I was parenting. I remember doing a class with NZ writer Fiona Kidman a fabulous writer and she talked about writing at the kitchen table with the children running around her and I could not do it, I could never understand how she could ever do it.
I need to be away, alone. I need to craft that time out.
W.S.M.W: Do you spend your time between NZ and Canada? This film has only Canadian funding.
S.B.: Funding in Canada was all post production and presales. Canada has very well-developed funding system that we don’t have here, including broadcasters who invest in films. Tom is Canadian and NZ citizen, and I am NZ citizen and a landed emigrant in Canada. So, we’re able to access the system there as well. It would be great to stay here, in New Zealand, and work here. You just have to go elsewhere, you do whatever you do to make your films.
W.S.M.W: Still, you began the film with your own funding, so how do you make a living?
S.B.: My husband shoots and directs big TV series in Canada mostly. He is a cinematographer, and I produced our films and I write. I’ve been working on a couple of novels for the last three years, we’re just getting into the last stages.
W.S.M.W: You’re a writer before all. Are your novels similar to your cinema?
S.B.: No. I have a historical novel pretty much finished and I have a contemporary novel on the way. That’s what I like about the novels. Nobody even tries to make you change to fit their idea. The changes that they suggest really are there about making the work better rather than conforming to someone else’s idea. When you’re going to funding, they want to conform their idea to your idea. For the book, they didn’t ask me to change anything. They were exactly happy with what I presented!
Thank you, Sumner Burstyn for this interview that gives us an insightful look into your work with your husband and your personal work.
All details about Sumner’s book This Way of Life here: http://www.cloudsouth.co.nz/project/this-way-of-life-2/
If you loved the film, you’ll love the book. It’s the same story but in the children’s eyes. Don’t hesitate to read it!
This Way of Life Trailer below: