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Director Mary Katzke's 'About Face'
by Geoffrey D. Roberts

When Gwen Bradshaw was 10 months old, her mother threw her into a raging bonfire, which left her severely burned and disfigured. Mary Katzke’s documentary, About Face: The Story of Gwendellin Bradshaw, tells Gwen’s real-life story. 

“Gwen lived next door to me as a toddler,” Katzke explains. “I heard kids throwing rocks at her and ran outside to chase them off.” And so began this filmmaker’s lifelong involvement with Gwen. 

Whenever Gwen asked her father for details about her estranged mother and what provoked the attack he would mumble “she threw you in a fire” and change the subject.

Gwen, now 24, was temporarily confined to a mental hospital in 2004 after unsuccessfully trying to take her life. This experience opened her eyes and led her to search for her mother -- but without any guidance from her father. She wanted to confront her mother about the past. Gwen hopes to be able to forgive her, while secretly yearning for a mother-daughter relationship that the tragedy has thus far denied her. 

Director Mary Katzke was kind enough to answer the questions below in a recent e-mail interview about her documentary.

QUESTION: Do you think Gwen would still seek her mother if her father had disclosed everything about her?

Katzke: Probably, as the need to know one’s parents, for better or for worse, and even more important, to have their approval and validation, runs pretty deep in most people. I think she is also curious to know how she is alike and different from her mother. Clearly there is a genetic factor in play here.

QUESTION:  How did you get the idea to make a film about Gwen’s quest?

Katzke: She has been tagging along on film shoots all her life.  She called me from the mental hospital the week she attempted suicide and said she was ready to tell her story. I was more than ready to help her do it.

QUESTION:  Why does Gwen’s father always rip up correspondence from her mother rather than screen the contents before giving it to his daughter or share the details he feels she could understand?

Katzke: He is likely ANGRY.  He didn’t ask to be abandoned with a handicapped child to raise on his own. He wasn’t even married to her mom. The fact that he had to try to pay off hundreds of thousands of medical bills added to his frustration.

QUESTION:  Gwen’s mother lived close enough to her to leave gifts such as porcelain dolls and clothing on her porch. The dolls were passed along to her by her father. If he could do this, why couldn’t he tell Gwen who they were from or give her any knowledge about her mother?

KATZKE: He is no saint … he didn’t want to open the discussion.  Understandably.

QUESTION: What lessons do you want the audience to learn from viewing your film?

Katzke: I want them to understand that people who face mental illness are not lacking in character or from self- control. They do try, they do have feelings and they are suffering from an illness, not a flaw they can somehow “fix” with will power or a job, or a sober life. They deserve treatment, and our compassion

(About Face: The Story of Gwendellin Bradshaw is one of 170 films showing at the Hot Docs 2009 Festival. For more information, please visit the Festival’s official site by clicking here.)

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