Blog Post #67: Gabriel Rhenals on 'For My Sister'!
Updated: May 7, 2020
I’m 33 years old and the past 17 years of my life have been defined by my passion for filmmaking. I was born and partly raised in Boston, Massachusetts but I’ve lived in Miami, Florida for most of my life. My parents are both from Colombia. My dad is an MIT graduate, civil engineer and applied mathematician. My mom is a homemaker and craftswoman. I have two older brothers and one younger brother.
I got into filmmaking in my early teens after what, up to then, was a nearly lifelong practice of visual arts, primarily drawing. Since my start as a filmmaker, I have written, produced, directed, shot and edited 16 short films. My latest short films have been exhibited at numerous film festivals, both domestic and international, and my last short film, The Promotion (2016), was nationally distributed on the PBS television show, film-maker.
In May of last year, I began writing my third original feature-length screenplay which has now become my first feature-length film, titled For My Sister. I fully completed it earlier this month. The film is about a young woman named Evie (Stephanie Maltez) who’s desperate to save her sister Tris (Cristina De Fatima) from the grips of a severe depression – a condition that has already marked their family with tragic death. It is primarily a drama but it's not afraid to be light-hearted at times.
For My Sister deals with mental illness and its stigma. Additionally, it was filmed on a phone, in Miami, for under $6,000, with a cast primarily made up of women and features time-traveling nanodrones. Here’s what I have to say about each of these distinctive aspects:
On mental illness and its stigma
My own history of mental illness and recovery served as an inspiration for the film’s drama and events. But an even greater inspiration came from my involvement as an advocate with the local, Miami-Dade chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a national organization that offers education and support to those afflicted with mental illness, their families and the surrounding community. NAMI is also intent on fighting the stigma associated with mental illness – the most challenging barrier to mental health.
In Miami, issues of mental health are of particular importance as Miami-Dade County has the highest percentage of people living with severe mental illness than any other metropolitan area in the country.
On filming on a phone
There was no crew or equipment on the near-entirety of this production beyond myself and a single-hand-held gimbal that held my phone (Samsung’s Galaxy S9+) and a microphone (the entire apparatus was dubbed by me, “The Excuse Destroyer”).
My interest in the convenience and advantage of using consumer-grade, digital cameras stretches all the way back to my earliest filmmaking impulses. I’ve always believed in the freedom and independence engendered by such choices. But have no fear, the video and audio quality is superb and the general ease of use allowed me to focus on the parts of filmmaking that truly matter. It all emboldened my resolve against an all-too-common technocratic mindset. The battle against that is as important a fight as for the themes and ideas of a film’s content.
My dad has a habit of saying, “Practice makes the tennis player, not their tennis racket.” I’ve taken that increasingly to heart over the years. Most so on this outing.
On filming locally
I believe in regional filmmaking; building something where you are and taking pride in the idiosyncrasies of people, architecture and geography therein. But Miami has the advantage of being like any ideal metropolis. It’s home to a substantial community of creative individuals with varied backgrounds, most of whom are interested in and stand to benefit from serious and strategic artistic pursuits. There’s so much dormant talent here waiting for the right conditions to blossom and it’s foolhardy to ignore the flora in your own backyard.
For My Sister boasts a cast of 25+ local actresses and actors who continually astounded me by what they brought to the project. Why would anyone already here want to pitch camp anywhere else?
Limitations breed creativity. John Lennon once said, “Give me a tuba and I’ll get you something out of it.” I think that’s the role of any artist, really: to mobilize basic means to do something novel and perhaps even magical with them.
I’ve always been frugal. As a person and, more importantly, as a filmmaker. This austere mentality has allowed me to produce a great deal of work with negligible financial risk or burden. All of my work shares this fundamental pride in maximizing the effect of having very little to work with. I know this is counter-intuitive to our society’s basic ideological thrust but in the past, I’ve competed with filmmakers with far more generous budgets and freedoms in both audience and jury selections – and won.
Simply put, the future is female. Today, women are making incredible strides in many important parts of our society, from culture to media to politics and beyond. These changes represent hope and, more frankly, a rebuke of age-old, global patriarchy which seems to be leading us all down a grim and sordid path (in mentality as much as in reality). As a man from a household 5/6ths male, I am surprisingly not the slightest bit insecure, defensive or offended by this tide of change.
This prevailing zeitgeist and the almost suffocating amount of pre-existing androcentric narratives, imagery and perspectives in our mediascape greatly informed the writing of the film’s screenplay. It also inspired my choice to fill the majority of the cast of For My Sister with a talented and diverse group of women. Their involvement improved upon my vision for this film in ways I did not expect and I'm immensely grateful for it! With all that said, I know I've now definitely earned the wrath of the MRA, incel and alt-right crowd.
On time-traveling nanodrones
Lastly, I must address the film’s most unusual feature: time-traveling nanodrones. Their conception arose from a deep frustration with the ever-fixed assumption of omniscient perspective in virtually all popular visual media under the sun. I needed to get away from this for my own sake as a filmmaker also interested in innovation and experimentation. The concept also appealed to me because it cast the camera operator (myself) in a role along with the actors. So, everyone was playing a part on set! In my case, that of a floating drone being operated by a company worker across a seemingly impossible gulf of time and space. Plus, it justified the technical limitations of filming on my phone.
C’mon, that’s like three birds with one stone!
See the film's two trailers here: www.gabrielrhenals.com/fms-trailers