Filmmaker and actress Sunnie McFadden-Curtis is an undeniable talent on both sides of the camera, never more present than in the captivating 2020 documentary, Broken Vows: Stories of Separation. Starting in 2016 following her own separation, Sunnie came to uniquely understand the challenges families face throughout separation, with thousands of hours of research and interviews. Sunnie and the Broken Vows team brilliantly and honestly elevate the experiences of women in times of pain, reeling, and healing throughout the years of separation, with the mission of helping others with similar experiences in navigating the many obstacles these women overcame and what comes next. We were honored to talk to Broken Vows director Sunnie McFadden-Curtis about her hopes for the film and the process of bringing personal stories from her own life and the lives of other women to the screen.
There is a great deal of openness and honesty across the experiences being shared by those interviewed. Can you speak on building a filmmaking environment in which deep and personal memories can be shared?
Well for starters I always do a pre-interview so I can really have a good sense of my subject’s stories. While doing an interview with a subject it’s typically either with me or my director of photography and I. I always let them know that if they’ve said something that they don’t want to include in the interview to just let me know and it’s gone. They also have the choice to re answer a question if they want. While that may rarely happen I still gives them a sense of ease during their interview. If they need a moment to pause to think or get emotional I’ll strongly believe in allowing those moment to just breathe.
The film views separation from the view of the spouses, the courts, the children, with a strong focus on elevating the experiences of women. What was the process like in deciding who would be interviewed?
With my documentaries I’ve tackled subject matter where I believe a void exists in the education surrounding them. Cracks in systems where people needed to find answers but all too often found them after a draining process and hardship. These experiences affected them so deeply they each felt a need to share them, whether as part of their healing or helping others. The sheer abundance of these stories I encountered inspired me to help countless others by creating a collection that everyone could benefit from. For this reason when it comes to choosing my subjects it always happens organically. Although everyone’s story is important I always perform a pre-interview to determine if their story aligns with the message of my documentaries. It’s also why I try to find diversity in the stories I select so that they are far reaching when it comes to relatability.
What was the experience like bringing your own stories of separation to the film?
While doing this project I wore multiple hats so to be honest I haven’t really taken a moment to pause, breathe, and reflect on my own story. That isn’t to say I won’t but I’ve had to compartmentalize during this process to complete the film. But in interviewing my daughter twice and my son once for the documentary I was able to see a new dimension to how my separation affected my family. It was important to me not to place any pressure on them to be part of it but I wanted to give them the opportunity to share their experience, to give them each a voice. Those were very intimate moments we shared, one on one, talking about a dark time in our lives. Hearing the perspectives of two of my children on the lead up to my separation and then during the separation was new for me. But I think it was therapeutic for them. Along with all my subjects their stories are raw, real, and quite compelling.
The subtle misuse of power in relationships and marriages discussed in the film is an experience that can receive significantly less attention than the more blatant acts. What would you say to someone trying to identify signs of subtle misuses of power in their relationship or marriage?
The subtle misuse of power; women second guess their instincts because they normalize controlling behaviour from their family of origin often. I’d tell women to trust their instincts. If they feel something is wrong, that’s because it is. Relationships should be partnerships, not hierarchies. There are many red flags that abuse victims suppress to keep their partners happy. If you are doing that, as I said, trust your instincts. You shouldn’t have to place their happiness before your voice.
What role does finding a support system/community play in separation?
The role of finding a support system or community during a separation is of the utmost of importance during a separation. Seeking out a good therapist or councillor for both you and your children during the lead up to a separation and to continue with them during the separation is important. Let your family and friends know exacting what you need from them. Whether it’s because you just need them to listen to you, help you with your children, or make you a meal. Whatever that may come to look like for you but it helps to be specific and communicate your needs.
What do you think are some current misconceptions about separation that the film could help dispel for viewers?
A serious misconception about separation that I found a lot of people are under is that separation and divorce are one of the same. Yet there is a distinct difference between separation and divorce. When in a separation you are in the storm and a divorce more often them not it can still be a fog but you are slowing coming to the light. “Separation is to Lightning, what divorce is to thunder”.
Another is that people often assume that if a person going through a separation doesn’t speak of it that means they’re doing well. Separation can be one of the most psychologically exhausting times in a women’s life. Regardless of how someone may appear they will need your support. Just be sure to ask them what that may look life for them and KEEP asking because they may still be figuring that out for themselves or aren’t ready to answer that question.
What kind of solace do you hope viewers can find in Broken Vows?
I hope viewers will find when they screen BROKEN VOWS is that they can find solace in the notion that you can walk through the darkness to the light, and that they’re not alone.
Do you have any recommendations for those looking for resources in the healing process of separation?
I recommend getting a good therapist or councillor for both you and your children upon separation, if not before. I’ve also produced a 6 volume digital companion resource which answers over 350 answers someone may have or may need around separation. More information can be found at brokenvowsfilm.com.
Strength is ever-present throughout the experiences in the film. What does strength look like to you?
Well for starters, the strength that each of the women and men in BROKEN VOWS embodied when placing themselves in front of the camera’s to share their personal stories of separation. Each did so selflessly for the world to see that what they underwent took incredible strength and force of will. Facing adversity head on or walking away from the wrong relationship for you both take great strength. Going through a Global Pandemic, International race riots and losing a child all within a short span of time and then come back from that to go on to find the strength to help others. All of that is what embodies strength to me.
What does the future hold for you?
More completed projects on the horizon, hopefully living by the water with or without a special someone in my life, haha, now that I have more time. Also, that my children are happy, healthy and flourishing in their lives.