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  • Allan Shedlin

A Grieving Father Seeks To Reveal the Wisdom of Trauma By Telling Stories of Others Like Him

Updated: Oct 6

Guest Post by Filmmaker Robert Manganelli

Father napping with son lying on top and playing video game
Robert and his son, Gio

Early morning Father’s Day, June 19, 1990, Terrylene shook me awake. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, she presented a blue marker on the home pregnancy test (+).


She asked, “Does this mean I am positively pregnant or positively not pregnant?” I replied, “positively pregnant.” Then came my lips against her growing abdomen, as I gently spoke and hummed my “womb song” to Gio daily.


By the time Gio was six months in the womb, he would push out. I could feel his hand against my lips. Once, Terrylene asked, “Bob, Gio is restless, please come and talk to him because I can’t get any sleep.”

My son, Gio.

Then came the moment Gio was born into my arms. The world stopped turning. I held him at a distance equal to mother’s eyes and breast – as the midwife explained, this was a newborn’s focal length. Immeasurable love and gratitude flowed through my tears. “My father and I are one” was not only real, it was visceral. “Me” was no longer. It was now “we” for the rest of my life.


First crawl, first steps, the day Gio discovered his own shadow and asked, “Why is light, daddy?” High school graduation and a full scholarship to RIT. From the moment Gio came into this world, my mentor.


Early morning, March 30, 2014. The phone rang. My mother’s voice at the other end:


Bob.


No. Please. Not Gio.


He’s gone.


The world stopped turning. Nothing was real. Even the walls, ceiling and the ground beneath me were unrecognizable. Like shattered pieces of a broken vase, I too was unrecognizable.


How do I “be”? How do I move through this waking dream? A millisecond? A year? However long I have to still breathe? A pain so searing that it drains everything from the soul and leaves only love. Pure love. The immeasurable love I knew at his first breath. The shower was my morning sanctuary.


But dads aren’t supposed to cry. Yeah, tell a river not to stream.


I’m still Gio’s dad. I still feel him, smell him in my sleeping dreams. Once, in my head – Gio’s words came to me from a wordless realm. It was remarkably clear, hyper-clear: “Tell a third among us, and I will meet you there.


I ran to my desk and wrote it down so I never forget.


It took some time, but today I fully understand. It is in the telling where Gio resides. It is where we meet – an unguarded, solemn meeting place. It is a cinematic telling of the “third among us,” which is you. My eye behind the viewfinder – another grieving father in front of my lens.


My camera became the meeting place where I looked at grief, and grief looked back. We recognized each other. Through our tears and smiles, we tell. We share and record a profound and sacred experience. Yes we grieve, but in grief we know the deepest love.


The overwhelming response to my pursuit – capturing INSPIRING stories that reveal the wisdom of trauma – confirmed the immense value of this journey and its almost Herculean need to memorialize what every human soul in Mankind's every era considers. Who are we?

It took some time, but today I fully understand. It is in the telling where Gio resides. It is where we meet – an unguarded, solemn meeting place. It is a cinematic telling of the “third among us,” which is you. My eye behind the viewfinder – another grieving father in front of my lens.

Grief is not a feeling. Grief is not depression or despair. Those are transitory states. Grief is a way of loving. Like fatherhood itself, grief stays.


I’m still a dad. I will always be a dad. Gio is forever my son and Catalene is forever my daughter.


In “We Were Here,” my relationship to film has been renovated for all of time. No longer in the realm of accomplishment or self-determination but, rather, a humble way to understand that which has slipped from view. A patchwork of image, sound, emotion, and experience that threads its way through love.


At previous film festivals, a common question I’ve been asked during the Q&A after the film: "What do you want the audience to bring with them as they walk out of the theater?" I want the film to be a reminder that love is in every aspect of Daddying. That the trivial in life ought not overshadow the precious and the fleeting.


* * *


EDITOR'S NOTE from DCG Founder Allan Shedlin: A few weeks ago I received a phone call, seemingly out of nowhere, from filmmaker Robert Manganelli. After only a few minutes, it felt like the call was somehow from everywhere – a call that was just meant to make a very important connection; to provide an opportunity to share a dimension of our work with dads that has been lurking, in one way or another, for the 28 years of my work with fathers.


After Robert's initial sentences about the death of his son, Gio, my natural hyper-empathic instinct was to exclaim, "I can't think of anything worse in the world than the death of one's child or grandchild." As Robert shared further about his vision and plans for his film, "We Were Here," and the journey that brought him to create it, it was clear to me that the "loss" of his son allowed him to find his passion. A passion not only to help those grieving the loss of a child, but also to remind us all to make the most of the gift of the moments we have with our children and grandchildren – to savor our daddying and mommying time.


Because we believe in the importance of Robert and Gio's message, DCG, through its Daddy Appleseed Fund, is supporting completion of "We Were Here" in a variety of ways. If you'd like to support the production of Robert's film, we invite you – actually, we URGE YOU – to make a tax-deductible donation of any amount through our partner and the film's fiscal agent REEL FATHERS, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization (but first, give your own child an extra hug...and then one more). REEL FATHERS works with fathers, youth, and families to promote a positive experience of fatherhood. Go to www.reelfathers.org and click on the "Donate" button. Indicate the donation is for "We Were Here."


 

Robert Manganelli is the father of Gio and Catalene and an award-winning filmmaker. He owned his first darkroom at the age of 7. By age 13, his photographs had toured more than 30 countries through the Photographic Society of America. Among his numerous exhibits at home and abroad, he was selected to participate in a group show, "Pennsylvania Photographers" curated by Weson Naef, curator photographic prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


From 1983 to 1985, he worked as a photojournalist in Washington, DC. Some notable clients were Washingtonian Magazine and The Washington Weekly, and he was Senator Ted Kennedy's "inside the beltway" personal photographer. He transitioned into filmmaking by making his first film, "3.23.85," which was a self portrait drawn from a selection of phone messages that were collected over a two-year span.


Robert was later chosen to participate in the Writers and Directors Labs at Robert Redford's, Sundance Institute (6 chosen from over 3,000 applicants) where he fully developed his screenplay, "Seeing in the Dark" ("After Image" 2001), a film starring John Mellencamp, Louise Fletcher (Academy award "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"), and his first wife, Gio's mother, Terrylene. It screened at Sundance and was picked up by Miramax for domestic distribution and Intermedia for International.


Currently, in addition to developing his documentary "We Were Here," from “Grieving Fathers, The Movie,” Robert is spearheading the effort to build a motion picture, television, and imaging science studio located in his hometown of Lehigh Valley, PA. The technology blueprint for the studio is delineated by his patent-pending, "Media Management System."


After his experience as a mentor to inner-city filmmakers, Robert admitted, "My take-away was far greater than my contribution. My students began to see their backyard as something inspirational or sacred, not something to be ashamed of."


He graduated Magna Cum Laude from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1983 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photographic Illustration. He received a Masters degree from UCLA Film School. As a graduate student, he was a nominee for a Paramount Pictures Fellowship. He also wrote and directed the award-winning short film, "Listen Carefully," which was selected by numerous film festivals, including: Sundance, AFI, Haifa Israel, Porto Portugal, Cork Ireland, CINE Golden Eagle, Critics Choice/Peoples Choice Tokyo, The Columbus Award, and the Spotlight Award UCLA Alumni.

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