Documentary | Filmmaking

A Matriarch Tells Her Story

1 Apr , 2000  

Written by Dave Avdoian | Posted by:

Christian de Rezendes talks about his poignant, personal documentary 'Alzira: A Matriarch Tells Her Story' which will screen at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

In the summer of 1995, Christian de Rezendes and his family embarked on a trip to his grandmother’s hometown of Bouçoais, Portugal. He took along a camera with the intention of taping the visit as a family memoir. Afterwards, while reviewing the footage, he realized there was much more to the images contained in the story. He would spend the next five years on the project. During this time, the film gradually transformed from a travelogue into a tribute to the determination and strength of his grandmother in her drive to forge a better life for herself and others in America.

The result, "Alzira: A Matriarch Tells Her Story," is a poignant, personal documentary that is by turns funny, sad, touching, somewhat familiar — this is the immigrant’s story every first- or second-generation American hears in bits and pieces around the dinner table — and strikingly unique.

Still, the film’s evolution came slowly. After realizing the potential for the story, de Rezendes began conducting interviews with family members, neighbors and friends in the hopes that the eventual product would be a massive three-and-a-half-hour film containing three interwoven stories. In late 1997, armed with 55 hours of footage and a 40-page outline, the Rhode Island filmmaker faced the daunting challenge of making it all work together as a single piece.

It was at this point that his grandmother’s story began to overwhelm the rest of the piece. Alzira came to America as a 14-year-old during the Great Depression. Over the next 40 years, she struggled to bring the rest of her family from Portugal with the promise of a better life in America. Eventually, she would successfully sponsor the safe transport of 24 family members. Realizing the dramatic power inherent to his grandmother’s life story, de Rezendes decided to drop the other story lines and focus exclusively on his grandmother’s experiences.

"Basically, I looked at all three aspects of the movie and said, ‘Okay, anything that does not service my grandmother’s story directly goes,’" says de Rezendes. "And that meant two-thirds of it. It was a matter of balancing it out… In the end what you learn is less is more, and keep it simple."

Shot on Hi-8 and Sony Digital Handicam, and complemented with family pictures and home movies, the 63-minute documentary conveys its message very economically. It seamlessly shuttles back and forth between different times and locales (since shooting occurred off and on for several years) for maximum dramatic impact. Although some scenes take place in Portugal in 1995 and others in Rhode Island in 1997, there is never a feeling of disjointedness or confusion.

The film is also careful to avoid melodrama and sentimentality. This, no doubt, is a reflection of Alzira’s own unassuming nature. "My grandmother is the kind of person who would sit in the corner and be the silent one while everyone else around her — whether it be her sisters, her brothers, the kids talking and doing family stuff — is causing a commotion," de Rezendes says. "Unless you looked for her you wouldn’t see her. You’d never know that all of that power could come out of that little lady."

This makes the few scenes where she reveals emotion to be all the more powerful, such as when she reads from a 1967 newspaper article detailing a family gathering. Obviously affected by the material, she pauses to regain her composure. Similarly, she opens up during a family get-together. Surrounded by many people who would not be in America were it not for her efforts, Alzira takes control of the conversation and admits to the difficulties she had bringing her family over, the numerous struggles she encountered.

These moments of real emotion juxtaposed with Alzira’s normally quiet demeanor prove to be the strongest moments of the film. They are moments of pure human truth, which is so central to documentary film. "You can tell in certain films where they’ve really watered everything down just so you could get it," says de Rezendes. " I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to emphasize more silent moments… It’s those little tiny bits of emotion that are important to keep and make a simple story much more powerful."

Not surprisingly, when de Rezendes first proposed the film to his grandmother, she was hesitant. "Her concern was that I was going to do all this work for nobody to care about it." This worry quickly proved moot, however. The film screened on Oscar weekend at the Bare Bones International Film Festival in Muskogee, Okla., and was also invited to Videolisboa International Film Festival in Lisbon, Portugal, in April. Of the 600 international entries, 35 were selected. In August, the film will screen out of competition at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, of which de Rezendes is program manager.

For now, the director will continue to focus on producing documentaries that are financially feasible. "I feel, from my own experience, [making documentaries is] the best filmmaking school that exists, because it trains you to adapt to real life immediately and try to make it connect with the audience visually. There’s also an immediacy to it that’s very strong and healthy."

For more information about ‘Alzira’ and de Rezendes’ other projects, visit

For more information about 'Alzira' and de Rezendes' other projects, visit