For Sian-Pierre Regis, the challenge of being a first-time filmmaker and releasing a documentary during the middle of a pandemic pales in comparison to the call he received from his mom about five years ago.
“There’s nothing more stressful than getting a call from your 75-year-old mom telling you she got fired from her job and has $600 in her bank account,” Regis recalled to USA TODAY, where he previously worked. “As a journalist, it was a moment that I needed to capture.”
He turned her story into “Duty Free,” a documentary that follows Regis and his mother, Rebecca Danigelis, as she tries to find a new life. Danigelis is a single mom who immigrated to the States from the U.K. She worked as a housekeeper at a Boston hotel while raising two Black sons. Danigelis emptied her retirement fund to send Regis to college. Her other son, Regis’ older brother, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and relies on Danigelis for emotional and financial support.
Danigelis lived in the building where she worked and was also evicted from her apartment when she was fired without cause.
In the 71-minute film, Danigelis is portrayed not as an elder who has had to overcome a seemingly insurmountable amount of heartbreak, but as a strong woman who still wakes up with a purpose, even if it’s not to work a job she had for 50 years. The mother-son duo set out on a “bucket list” adventure that finds Danigelis taking hip-hop classes, milking cows and even joining Instagram; she has over 50,000 followers and yes, Regis has to monitor direct messages from “suitors.”
But the most poignant moment for Danigelis, and viewers, is their trip back to England. Danigelis was born in Liverpool. Back in the U.K., she reconnects with her daughter Joanne (Regis’s half-sister) and her granddaughter. When “Duty Free” was filmed, Danigelis hadn’t seen Joanne in a decade; they now speak every day and are looking forward to reconnecting after the pandemic.
One of Regis’s goals with the film was to illustrate how difficult it can be for someone his mother’s age who is searching for a job later in life.
“(My mom) found a really hard time traversing the internet. Everything is on LinkedIn now. You’re emailing your resume now; you’re not handing it in,” he said. “It broke my heart to watch my mom not be able to find a job because the culture has shifted beyond her.”
The film ends pre-pandemic with Danigelis working part-time at a hotel in New York. She was furloughed in March of 2020 and now lives in an apartment with Regis and his partner.
“We have multi-generational living,” Danigelis says, proudly. “It’s quite different, but it’s quite exciting. All of the interaction (within their social circle) has taken my mind off of losing my job.”
Danigelis said she’s on a first-name basis with people all over their neighborhood. And Regis gushed that among his friends, his mother has “totally outshined” him. He’s excited that others will be able to see her shine in theaters. After a virtual festival run, “Duty Free” will open in theaters across the country on Mother’s Day weekend.
“I’m enjoying life!” Danigelis exclaimed as she reflected on the experience of her first film junket , through a pandemic no less, while also offering perhaps the film’s biggest takeaway: “Everybody deserves to be happy.”
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