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In 'Duty Free,' A Mother And Son Go On An 'Epic Bucket List Adventure For The Generations'

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Journalist Sian-Pierre Regis and his mother, Rebecca Danigelis, became something of a minor sensation in 2017 when word got out that, following Rebecca’s sudden firing from her decades-long hotel housekeeping job, Sian-Pierre came up with a novel way to help her cope: He asked her to create a bucket list of things she’d always wanted to do, but that her job had kept her from trying.

He documents their sometimes-joyful, sometimes-profound journey in the new film Duty Free, a movie they hope will shed light on the experiences of caregivers and the obstacles facing the older generation in this country.

KMUW's Fletcher Powell recently spoke with Sian-Pierre Regis and Rebecca Danigelis about the shock that set their story into motion.

Interview Highlights

Sian-Pierre Regis: You know, this film in a lot of ways was a cry for help on my part. When my mom lost her job and was given two weeks pay and essentially an eviction notice, I realized that her world was crumbling and that the only person that would be there to help her was me. So as a former journalist, you know, my gut reaction was to pick up a camera and start shooting. And over the hours and hours, hundreds of hours of footage, I realized that this was an act by me to make sure that my mom was taken care of. Putting this film out and showing sort of like the need for family and how families help each other survive, it was just a way for me to process my own feelings and hurt.

Rebecca Danigelis: For me, really the shock. I've worked very hard. I've been a director of housekeeping for 40 years. I put the hotel together. I lived in the building. And I let my work define me. I gave my heart and soul to the place, and then just suddenly to be told, 'Rebecca, we value you as an employee, dear, but today is your last day. We're restructuring.' It was a shock. I heard about this happening to other people. I never expected it to happen to me. Never. And basically Sian-Pierre came to my rescue.

Fletcher Powell: Rebecca, you said you let your work define you. I think even for people who voluntarily retire, which of course you very much did not, there's probably a sense of a loss of purpose when you don't have that job anymore. We certainly-- many of us define ourselves by our work, and so I'm wondering what that was like for you to lose that part of your life, that sense of purpose. 

Rebecca Danigelis: I mean, the days were just, I just cried. I just didn't know what I was going to do with that. I had to find another job. I had to find another job, find another job, find another job. And you're not good at filling out all this stuff. I mean, mine has always been a very hands-on job. Speaking three languages, directing people, training people in three languages, doing this, that, and the other, but not actually sitting at a desk and doing stuff on the computer.

Sian-Pierre Regis: There was a desperation. I mean, that's I think the easiest way to define what I saw over the two years. A desperation to feel valued for my mom, a desperation to find a new purpose, a desperation to, you know, have a paycheck. All of those things I think my mom went through when she lost the one thing that she could depend on for over 40 years.

Fletcher Powell: I think that desperation really does come through in your footage in the movie. It feels like when you have those crises in your life, you become just kind of untethered where you really are flailing. I mean, there is that sense of panic that comes through.

Sian-Pierre Regis: Totally. Yeah. And there are phone calls in the film that you see that, you know, it's... you hear it in my mom's voice. And I had never heard my mom so desperate, so desolate, so hurt. And you know, that was really where the gut reaction came from. For me to say, I need to do something. Not only do I need to make sure I'm recording this, but I need to take her away from this misery.

Fletcher Powell: You're a journalist, and so you do have some experience with having a little bit of distance from your subject. But this must have been very difficult to film this, have your mother be your subject during maybe the most raw experience you'd ever seen her go through.

Sian-Pierre Regis: Yeah, it was really hard. And you know, Fletcher, it came at a really interesting time because it was in 2016 that this happened. And that was, you know, during sort of the rise of our former president. And I thought like, wow, there's so much misinformation out there. So many fake stories. Well, this is a story that I can tell truthfully and honestly, and fully. And I think that want and that desire to tell a story completely is what held me back from putting down the camera and giving my mom a hug in the hardest moments.

It was, you know, knowing that if I can just be objective in this moment and capture this, then I think there are a lot of people on the other end who will see this and see themselves in it. And that's really what kept me going, but it was extremely difficult to hear your mom cry, who's... at 75, is... it, it hurts. It really, really hurts. And it was definitely the most emotional years of my life, for sure.

Fletcher Powell: And so you hit on this idea of the bucket list. And you're trying to figure out how to support your mother financially, but you hit on this way to help her emotionally. Actually physically writing it down and going through the things you wish you'd always done.

Rebecca Danigelis: Well, I actually, he just told me, he says, 'Mom, I want to take you on a bucket list and get you away from all of this. Write down a list of all the things you couldn't do when you were working.' And you know, I had to think for a while, but then I remembered all the things the guests who came in the hotel told me they were doing. I'd say, 'Hello Mrs. Jones, you came back this year?' 'Yes, we're going to pick up Brent from summer camp with Adriana and we thought that we'd just go and milk a cow.' So I'd milk a cow.

Then you've got the marathoners every year, year after year, they come in with a big silver capes, all wrapped around in pure misery, limping along. Why the hell? And I know all the people. Year after year, lovely people, but always after the race, 'Why do they keep... I got to experience this to see why they keep doing it.' So do the marathon route. Did that. Then the hip hop, I've always watched Sian-Pierre on his college videos and dancing, getting all loose and everything. Well me, as an old Victorian-mothered person, I am rather more of a minuet style, but I wanted to see the feeling, I wanted to have the feeling that he had when I saw him flopping around flailing.

Sian-Pierre Regis: That was my favorite. We took a hip hop class with a dancer from Hamilton: The Musical, and my mom killed it. She absolutely killed it. It was a great experience to watch.

Rebecca Danigelis: Yes, well. Hmm.

[laughter]

Fletcher Powell: You know, those are fun to watch during the course of the film, but there are certainly some more profound moments. And one of those was reuniting with the daughter that you had sent to live back in England many years before. And from what I understand, you had had no contact with her, is that right?

Rebecca Danigelis: We had contact, but she had gone to England. I was very ill and I weighed 67 pounds. I had tumors removed from my breasts. My sister took my daughter, who was only three, back to England. And we talked on the phone and everything, but as a young girl, she had a great, you know, upbringing—American college in Cairo and boarding and everything like that. But what I didn't know was, and I found out on this journey, is she wasn't happy. She wasn't happy because I wasn't with her. And I'm thinking, you know, she has to be taken care of, but I'm not looking at the inside heart of a little girl who was basically very lonely. And it's carried with her. And so we have reconnected and now we talk almost every day. And my little granddaughter, I had only seen her when she was a baby. I had the opportunity, I put on my list: I want to bake a cake with my granddaughter. So many mommies and daddies go to granny's house and granny cooks. I never had that because it's 3,000 miles away and I worked every day.

Sian-Pierre Regis: So yeah, there are some... certainly some profound and heavy moments in the film that are very human, I think. But then there are some joyous ones and it's that adventure that I think makes the film so enjoyable and deep to watch.

Fletcher Powell: One thing that I really love is that you're really seeing a generosity of people, whether that's people that you've never met before, who let you milk a cow, or, Rebecca, whether that's your daughter, who, I think it's clear in the movie that she has some amount of pain from those years, but she's not letting that get in the way of your reunification, of welcoming you back into her life, and I think that shows some generosity as well, that emotional generosity.

Sian-Pierre Regis: We've heard so much from people around the country, you know, not only to say 'This happened to me, I was fired late in life,' but also to say, 'Hey, I see you're on a bucket list adventure. Come to Sri Lanka. We'll swim with dolphins.' And so, you know, in a lot of ways, the film Duty Free is like, you know, you kind of see both sides of humanity, you see the heart, and sort of the cruel, which is like the people who kind of got rid of my mom. And then you see the other side of humanity of people who are so generous and care so much about her happiness. So it was just incredible.

Rebecca Danigelis: People I don't know, China, Greece, Argentina.

Fletcher Powell: Seeing all of these people around the world come and share their experiences with you and see a bit of themselves in your experience, that really does open us up to the people in the world that we might walk by every day and don't even think about.

Sian-Pierre Regis: Yeah, a big part of this film is particularly around older people, right? I mean, this is an intergenerational film. I'm a young guy and my mom's an older woman, and then we go on this epic bucket list adventure for the generations. But, you know, what I learned in the process was how discarded older adults are in this country. Not only in their workplaces, as we see with this story, but in the small jokes that we make, in ads that we create, I mean, really older people are invisible. I look at the rollout of the vaccine and how hard it was for older people to navigate those websites. We're not thinking about them. We're not putting them first. And so it really is...

Rebecca Danigelis: I'm guilty of that too. I didn't think about old people. I was old, but I didn't think that this happened. I didn't know. I didn't think about. I didn't... it was a big shock to me. It's not going to happen to a lot of people anymore. It's not. There's going to be some legislation, or something, that's our campaign.

Sian-Pierre Regis: Yeah, we're really, we're running an impact campaign at the end of this film, which is all about bringing to the light ageism and ageist notions, but also, you know, creating a forum for intergenerational care. And trying to bring younger folks and older folks together to have conversations, whether they're, you know, conversations about care, end of life, dignity, aging in place, all of that.

It's so important because we don't talk about it as young people. And yet we will also be old too. And so why are we betting our against our own futures, in sort of the actions that we take in the everyday? But it's important to note that it's not all heavy and this one is making lemonade out of lemons. Duty Free is so joyous. You leave feeling light of heart. But you're certainly sort of thinking about your family and how we move in this culture today.

Rebecca Danigelis: And he gave me the time of my life. Thank you.

Sian-Pierre Regis: You're welcome, Mom.

Duty Free plays this weekend at mama.film microcinema in Wichita. You can find more on those screenings at mama-dot-film.