Genevieve Davis’ new docudrama Secret Life, Secret Death uncovers her grandmother’s experience in the seedy underworld of 1920s gangland Chicago from years of family secrecy. The story includes her grandmother’s involvement in bootlegging and prostitution in Chicago. Later, she owned a brothel in northern Wisconsin. Davis, a Milwaukee native, styled the film to be art. Exaggerated sets, smudged color schemes and expressionist acting are all part of Davis’ emotional journey to her family’s past.
Why was this film so emotional for you?
I grew up in an alcoholic family, first off. My grandmother was an alcoholic, and my dad became an alcoholic. My grandmother let him go at 11 years old, but she saved him by keeping him out of crime. He became a law-abiding man. Very little about my grandmother was ever dis cussed in our family.
Filming was a journey for me through those dark emotions—like Orpheus going down to Hades and then coming back up. This three-year journey of making the film is allowing me to live in a better world— much better than before I went down in there. It took a lot of fierceness of character from me. There were actually four people in my family that didn’t get to have this peace, and they died early. It’s a very dangerous thing to have family secrets, those toxic emotions. This is our story. It’s a Wisconsin story.
Describe the production.
First of all, it’s an art film. There wasn’t some censor telling me what I could and couldn’t do. I just started shooting. I am a rebel; I don’t need a million dollars to make a film. Actually, much of the film was shot in Milwaukee, like the gangster funeral. A lot of actors came from Milwaukee, and some of our costumes came from Marquette. I also used old photographs to recreate 1920s Chicago for the sake of budget. I have experience in dance television production and used a green-screen special effect technique of combining dance and photography.
Kjersti Beth played your grandmother. How was she?
This was her first acting job and she was very, very good. One reason I started working with her is that she was the only person small enough to fit in the sample costume. Kjersti is a model and she looks very soulful. I wanted an actress that was real looking, not someone who was exaggerated or made up.
What do you want audiences to take away?
I’d like people to know it’s OK to have those family secrets. Some female ancestors have led incredibly difficult lives because of the social mores of the time. If you look with compassion and understanding at these things that were kept secret, you can bring healing to your family.
Where can people see this film?
7 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre, May 10.