Writer and director Ruth Mataya Gango is a storyteller. And the story she has chosen to tell is that of the abuse she suffered during her childhood at the hands of her mother.
It is a difficult tale to share, especially when Gango, of Dubuque, has chosen a public medium for what has too often become a very private experience.
She has been surprised by the well of emotions that have resurfaced while directing her second short film, “Aturdir.”
“The word ‘aturdir’ means ‘to be stunned’ in Spanish,” said Gango, 39. “And that’s how I felt through my childhood. It felt like a very disabled childhood.”
While filming a scene in an apartment in Galena, Ill., on July 1, Gango was overcome by tears and had to stop shooting for a moment.
“I broke down and cried,” she said. “It wasn’t so much what I saw, it was what I heard. It really got me.”
Gango’s first short film, “Lily,” also told of her abuse. It was featured on the Iowa PBS series, “The Film Lounge” in 2017.
This time around, Gango has chosen to not change any of the names in her story.
“Everything is true,” she said. “There are a lot of things I didn’t include, but everything that’s in the film is the truth.”
On July 2, Gango and her cast and crew were in Farley, Iowa, to film scenes at Farley Elementary School. She said principal Lori Grimoskas has been instrumental in facilitating the crew’s work on the playground and in the building.
“She’s been working with me the whole time,” Gango said. “She’s been amazing.”
Leia McCrary, 13, is the young actress who scored the starring role of 9-year-old Ruth in the film.
McCrary, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., was attending the 2017 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival with her parents when she caught Gango’s eye. Gango had completed the screenplay and was ready to begin casting.
“I saw this girl across the room and said to my husband, ‘That’s her,’” Gango said. “I’m afraid I started creeping on her a little bit.”
“Ruth approached me and we talked a bit,” McCrary said. Then, she asked me to point out my parents. She didn’t tell me anything about a movie. She talked to my parents first.”
Other than some school productions, this is McCrary’s first foray into acting. So far, she said, she likes it.
“There were some things that were familiar to me, like lights and that kind of thing,” McCrary said. “But there were other things that I hadn’t experienced and that were really cool, like having the camera right on you.”
Gango wrapped filming on July 3. Her husband and the film’s director of photography, Jackson Cooper Gango, will assist her with post-production.
“Jackson is the co-owner of Dreamcatcher Productions in Dubuque,” Gango said. “He’s very good at what he does.”
Gango plans on submitting her finished film to festivals around the country, including Dubuque; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore.
She hopes it will stimulate open-minded dialogue about the issue of child abuse and perhaps encourage victims and witnesses to speak up.
“Friends would walk by my house and hear me screaming,” she said. “They would ask me in school the next day, ‘Are you OK?’ and I would always say, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’” But nobody ever went beyond that. Nobody ever told somebody who could actually do something.”
As an adult looking back at her childhood, and as a mother to son Ian, 14, Gango said she has a hard time wrapping her head around the mindset of an abuser.
“Children are fun and amazing,” she said. “My son is an incredible human being. I don’t see how a loving parent could hurt their child.”
The tough subject matter has left an impression on McCrary, but the teen has handled it in stride.
“It was difficult to do some scenes because Ruth got very emotional,” she said. “So, that was very eye-opening to me. I would wonder what I would do if I was ever in that situation. I hope I would say something.”
Despite her maturity, or maybe because of it, McCrary had a quick answer when asked if she would be staying in Dubuque with her parents beyond the end of the film shoot to enjoy some rest and relaxation.
“No, we’re going home on Sunday,” she said. “I have to be back in Atlanta for an orthodontist appointment on Monday.”