Suzanne St. John’s debut documemory is a blessing
Maybe they were sipping warm cups of coffee, or nibbling on licorice. Suzanne St. John isn’t quite sure. All she remembers is that her mom, Nancy St. John, said something along the lines of “I used to be a nun.” The 20-year-old Suzanne was floored. But even then, and now, 16 years later, she says it all sort of makes sense. The bizarre twist in her mother’s life is the puzzle piece that was missing for so many years.
Suzanne and her sister were raised in the Catholic church, went to Catholic school, and did all things Catholic. And while Confession was a regular part of the family’s religious experience, it took Nancy many years to confess her own secret. Suzanne says the unveiling of her mother’s hidden past accounted for some fuzzy, missing years in her mom’s biography.
But the surprises were just beginning. In the next four years Nancy became a prescription pill drug addict and she lost everything, resulting in homelessness. Then, she was diagnosed with cancer and died when Suzanne was 24. Mother and daughter shared a whirlwind life together and those final few years were poignant and life changing, for both of them.
When Suzanne discovered that her mom was a former nun, she began documenting her mother’s life story on video. During these intimate, cinematic moments, Nancy confessed to many other things—the calling to serve God, how her life’s passion was stolen from her, and ultimately the struggle she endured with her own mother’s disapproval of her choice to be a nun. These “confessions” are coming to a theater near you (sort of). At 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 20, Suzanne, the former assistant director of Santa Cruz Community Television, will air her mother’s story in a “documemory” at the Center for Conscious Living in Santa Cruz. Admission is free.
While this may not be a traditional movie night, the film is noteworthy and thoroughly original. Suzanne has taken her mother’s story and interwoven it with her own, creating Sister Nancy, a dramatic retelling of their mother/daughter story.
“I think this is a cool story and a lot of people will relate to it,” Suzanne says. “Everybody has a mom and we all have that relationship, good or bad, better or worse. The mother/daughter relationship has trials and tribulations that we all go through, from hating each other to best friends.”
Sister Nancy breaks down the intricacies of these timeless relationships, by letting us peek into the Suzanne/Nancy tale. The movie is tough to define; it plays both like a documentary and a narrative story, which makes perfect sense being that the film was spawned from Suzanne’s one-woman show that played to strong reviews in San Francisco in 1996.
The movie begins with Suzanne, clad in a baseball cap and moving clothes, as she loads up a U-Haul and drives along what looks like Highway 1. Even before she has said a word, we see a wealth of history and emotions flutter across her face. She enters a colossal, dilapidated room and begins to unload pieces of furniture and boxes; the latter seem to be carrying her mother’s possessions. Out comes a package of Ensure, a collection of Depends, and so on. Suzanne sweeps, drinks, rests on the couch, paces the room and all the while delivers compelling monologues, straight to the camera. She talks about her mom with us, as if the audience is her best friend, eager to listen. And we are. During countless monologues, interspersed with video clips of her mom talking about her relationship with own mother, we are treated to a strange and delightful cinematic experience.
Sister Nancy is not your typical talking heads documentary. While there are fundamentally two talking heads—Suzanne and Nancy—the movie never falls into that drone-like state that befalls some documentaries. This is because of both the deeply personal nature of the subject matter and the way in which it is presented. When Suzanne delivers a monologue, she’s always busy doing something, and she’s doing things that have meaning. On top of that, she’s a damn fine actress. In between her monologues, and her mother’s video storytelling, we see still shots of various photos of both of them, and, we see finely performed dramatic, poignant reenactments.
When Suzanne first debuted the film to her crew, “there was not a dry eye in the house,” she says.
This is to be expected if you attend the film. It pulls on your heartstrings and jumps straight into topics like death, cancer, drugs, homelessness and fractured family relationships.
The movie was 10 years in the making. The process began a few years after Nancy passed away. In fact, at the time when Suzanne filmed Nancy’s memoirs, neither woman knew that the video would one day end up as a documemory. Although, maybe Nancy’s intuition was speaking for her when one day during filming she said to her daughter, “this is for the film.”
In 1995, Nancy passed away from lung cancer. In 1996 Suzanne, a long-time Santa Cruz County resident, decided to divulge her artistic nature in a different way than her well-known musical side. (She’s the lead singer in the blues band, Pearl Alley.) She penned the story, which later turned into this film, and staged it for three weekends in San Francisco.
During the theatrical performances, Suzanne recognized a number of people from her mother’s past sitting in the audience. “I saw people who my mother taught, people who lived in the homeless shelter with her,” she says. At this point Suzanne gets choked up for a minute.
“ … I’m grateful I have this gift now to give to my kids to introduce them to their grandmother. They’re able to meet her through this tape. The power of oral histories and recording—there’s nothing like it.”“Sister Nancy” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 20 at the Center for Conscious Living, 1818 Felt St., Santa Cruz. Admission is free. There will be a Q&A with Suzanne St. John following the screening of the film.