Amy DePaola: Meshing Documentary and Fiction to Navigate Trauma

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Filmmaking can be a powerful tool in working through experiences of trauma. Director Amy DePaola wielded this tool in her new short film, AMYDEE, to navigate her own experience with trauma. DePaola took time while directing a new series in Boston to talk with #DirectedByWomen about her short film, which is a combination of cinema verite and fiction.

DBW: At the beginning of the film, a title card says, “based on some reality.” Can you elaborate on those aspects of reality?

AD: I was considering using “Based on True Events” because, it was very true to my experience; not in a literal way but what you see on screen is a condensed version of what happened over the course of 2 years of my life. The B storyline of the young woman, Tara O’Brien, is also based on a murder that took place in Boston around the time I was attacked. I often thought about that young woman, and to do this day, still do. But, the 2 years this 15-minute film portrays (which is more than accurate, I was attacked on 10/5/2013 and fought on 10/5/2015), I experimented with how to handle my PTSD and recovery; I was ridden with anxiety and depression, putting my energy into my social life. Then I found boxing and just really loved how it made me feel. One of the truths left out of this film worth mentioning was that I fought in a charity match for the organization Haymakers for Hope and raised money for cancer research during the training camp leading up to my big fight.

Ultimately, I chose to use the phrase “Based on some Reality,” because I was still processing a lot of how I was feeling and a part of me was masking that. Now, that I reflect on the reaction from it, I do think it leaves the audience a bit more open to Amy’s story. Sometimes it is easier to relate to characters that we don’t believe existed in real life.

DBW: As someone who has survived assault, I was struck with how you portrayed PTSD, from nightmares to being afraid in the shower; it was such a realistic portrayal of how those moments sneak up on you and can really throw off your whole day. What was it like writing, filming, and directing those moments of PTSD?

AD: Thank you for sharing your experience with me. Honestly, it was a lot of living inside of myself for a bit, which was a struggle. When developing this film, I always knew that sound was going to be a big part of the trauma and its experience. It was one of the ways I could relate with my whole crew about those moments – particularly, the shower scene. Some folks were like “but wait, what does she actually hear in this moment?” In return, I would have to explain that she didn’t hear anything but rather, it was the start of the narrative she was telling herself while in the shower: a narrative where you convince yourself you aren’t safe and something is not right. Further, in my experience of PTSD, the littlest and faintest noises, especially noises that you hear in the fall (leaves crunching on the ground, etc.), were triggers for me and I wanted to remain true to that. We chose the sound of a train screeching through in the distance for many of these moments because that’s how fast these moments tend to arrive in real life; unexpected, fast and out of one’s control.

DBW: Why did you decide to combine narrative and cinema verite rather than just create a documentary?

AD: Great question. Making a documentary of this story never crossed my mind. I have a background in acting and since I started producing and directing, I always wanted to give myself a role that I believed served a bigger purpose for viewers. Now, it also never crossed my mind that I would have to go through an experience I wish I never went through to get there, but this story felt right and I needed to use my art to get through it. The choice for using verite came after I saw the film Bob and The Trees, which does something similar and very, very subtly. (It was also when I made this decision that I decided to train for my first amateur fight). I really enjoyed that film and how much closer I felt to the characters because they were playing heightened versions of themselves. With Amy, I think there is a bit more of a distinction between the two modes of filmmaking and hence why some programmers have programmed the film in documentary verse narrative blocks; but my choice is to bill it as a narrative.

Reflecting back on it now, using verite was the right choice because I was still actively going through recovery and growing during my training and even further, when I was editing the film and had to come to terms with how much vulnerability I needed to portray in order for it all to feel balanced and right. A colleague of mine once told me that you can feel the process of recovery and the process of making the film while viewing it. I liked that observation.

DBW: I noticed that much of this film is shot in closeup, which to me made me feel closer to you/your character and her emotional state. Can you talk more to the way you chose to shoot this film? Were you trying to get the viewer closer to you through shooting in closeup?

AD: Great question that I haven’t been asked enough, thank you. I love close-ups. I love actors. I love feeling someone else’s story in their eyes. I could do everything in my career on a 50mm and 85mm and be pretty happy but for the sake of my cinematographers and editors, I will only do 1/2 of everything that way.

The close-ups do have some background to them. I made a short film titled Thirty Today in graduate school about a lonely woman who turns 30 by herself and used a lot of close-ups in the film. A professor of mine said that it felt “too claustrophobic” and it made her dislike the character as a result. She didn’t mention this as a compliment but for me, her reaction was almost the point. I wanted some of the same feeling in AMYDEE to come across, to use it as a way to take a stand to say: look at this; look at this complex female character and look at her good, she’s not perfect; she doesn’t claim to be; she’s still going to make mistakes; she has good and bad in her; and good and bad things happen to her, and not always in that order.

DBW: I love how you show the beginning of the boxing match but not the full thing. It’s such a great moment of “it doesn’t matter if I win or lose, it’s about how far I’ve come.” Are you still boxing? What do you find so empowering about the sport?

AD: I am still boxing, it is like meditation for me. Within the last year, I moved from Boston, where I discovered the sport, back to NYC, near where I grew up. With that I found that my relationship with the sport had just as much to do with the community in which I discovered it over at Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston as it did with the sport itself. It’s been tough to find my second boxing home in NYC, but I’ve found some comfort in the NYC EverybodyFights location, which is familiar to me since I know so many of the staff at the flagship location in Boston. I’m not sparring to train for a fight but I do make it apart of my exercise regime, which is super important for my mental health.

DBW: This is a beautiful film about reclaiming power and finding strength within yourself, both physical and emotional. Could you share some thoughts about ways women can reclaim their own power?

AD: First, I think reclaiming one’s own power has to start with the belief that you can do that. I should follow that and say, that EVERYONE can – and I mean every one. The narratives we tell ourselves are instrumental to our own success and are the foundation for our inner and outer belief systems. AMYDEE was my way of re-writing the narrative of what happened to me. It is the story I would rather tell.

I believe that the mind/body connection is super important and, for me, I need physical activity, healthy eating, good sleep and one that I am trying to currently work on: cutting down my digital communication. I don’t want to answer this question and make you think I have this all figured out. This process is cyclical. I certainly have my days where I am extremely depressed and feel like I have absolutely no power whatsoever. But – when I remind myself of the behavior that helps me – it never fails.

My advice to anyone who feels that they need to regain strength is to know that you deserve it, we all do, and to know that only you hold the power. How magical is that? You just need to find the things that you like to do or have always wanted to do to activate that power. I encourage those things to be something healthy and mindful, something that you can repeat often and doesn’t provide added stress to your life. If you do these things with focus and consistency you will find the ability to reclaim your space. The things that activate me are a combination of things; boxing is one of them and I am constantly searching for ways to go deeper in that mindset. Making films will always be one of my mediums to do this but the stories I explore will help to deepen the practice. At least, that’s my intention.

You can watch Amy DePaola’s short film, AMYDEE, now on Film Shortage. Learn more about DePaola on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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