One of the strongest films coming out of the Santa Barbara Filmmakers subsection is the strikingly titled Mommy, I’m a Bastard!, which puts the life story of twentysomething Max Barbakow — adopted son of former festival president Jeffrey Barbakow — under a brightly lit microscope. Directed by Max himself, we get a powerful look at completely open and honest adoption-done-right, while learning about the potential pitfalls along the way. It’s funny, charming, heart-warming, and, at times, pretty tense, so much like your usual Thanksgiving dinner.
The younger Barbakow recently answered some questions via email.
What did your family think when you wanted to make a documentary out of your life story?
The fam could not have been more supportive about me making Bastard! To be honest, I think this is less a story of my life than of the members of my family and how they found each other just before my birth, or at least that’s what I tried to achieve by making the film. My big brother Bennett (who also has a hilarious, beautiful short film in the festival, Byron’s Theme), my mom, Pops, my birthmother, Wendy, and her parents — they all are some of the funniest, dynamic, and most interesting people I know, so me making Bastard! was really trying to capture the vivid life in their relationships and personalities and perspectives and try to honor them in a manner both appropriately irreverent and sincere.
Is this your first film?
This is my first feature film, but I’ve been shooting shorts and music videos and sketches and also writing stuff since high school. I feel like this one was the pay-off after a lot of practice.
How long did this take to make?
The short answer is: The first cut of this movie was my thesis at Yale in 2011, and I worked on-and-off on expanding it into a feature before locking picture last August. When I screened it in college, I already knew there was more stuff I wanted to put in — it certainly didn’t feel complete from my prospective. Amazingly, a lot of people who saw that first cut felt the same way. They responded enthusiastically to the characters and the overall narrative — they actually wanted to see more!
So, I shot some more stuff that summer and then got back into the editing room in the fall to really re-conceive everything because the pacing was going to change in order for the longer movie to work. Initially, I had a tough go throwing myself back into the story, so I took a long break, made other things, went traveling in Asia for work on another project.
When I got back last spring, I was ready to go and finished in the late summer. I learned so much during that second stretch of postgrad post-production. I expected to be able to get in there and just finish the thing, but turns out making movies is an unruly, tough process; ultimately, it takes however long it takes.
Did you do the editing? Very impressive work.
I did do the editing. Thanks for saying so! I got a lot of really good feedback from my brother, Bennett, along the way, and some helpful notes from a crew of talented filmmaker buds too.
Would you advocate for open adoption as a better way to handle this sort of family setup?
Open adoption worked well in my case, and my family setup is most definitely a result of my parents and Wendy deciding to go that route. My mom is absolutely fearless and always says, “Honesty is the best policy,” and I agree in that I think that every kid should be able to know where they come from and if they are indeed a product of an adoption. A lot of time, secrets or pretending you’re somebody you’re not towards as a means of protection or because of insecurity only results in a lot of hurt and further distrust and bigger emotional problems.
All that being said, I respect the right of birthparents to not want involvement. Adoption is complicated, people are complicated, and there really isn’t one answer about how to go about it when you have these complex emotions involved.
But I stand by my mom’s thoughts. Be open and honest and proud. It certainly worked out well for us!
How much did you emotions come into play while making the film?
I initially saw Bastard! as this opportunity to celebrate my families and our unique dynamic, mostly to salute them. I thought making the movie would be a fun way to look back on a stretch I have no perspective on because I was either in utero or an infant, but it soon became apparent that this film was as much about me as everyone else. That might seem obvious from the self-reflexive nature of the title, but I’m not really the extrovert type — it’s why I prefer being behind the lens — and a lot of my re-cutting the movie had to do with finding a way to put myself in it. The second half of the film is filled with my emotions, or at least my efforts to express them, so in that way, yeah, the making Bastard! was extremely cathartic.
Mommy, I’m a Bastard! screens on Mon., Jan. 28, 7:20 p.m., and Sun., Feb. 3, 10:20 a.m., both times at the Metro 4.