“The film is a love letter from me to Helvetia” – Clara Lehmann on Born in a Ballroom and her Mütter

BY CLARA LEHMANN, DIRECTOR, BORN IN A BALLROOM

A black pleated skirt embroidered with gold thread hung in my closet for over a decade. Before it found its way there, the regal skirt belonged to my mother, who received it from her mother, Eleanor Fahrner Mailloux. We grandkids called Eleanor, Mütter, the Swiss word for mother. Mütter designed the skirt, picked out the fabric, and her husband, Gordon Mailloux had it made for her by some of the finest seamstresses in Hong Kong circa the late-1950s.

I donned the skirt for the first time on the red carpet of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). Jonathan Lacocque and I directed and produced the documentary film called Born in a Ballroom. A five-year investment for us, the film premiered at SBIFF in January 2020. The film is a love letter from me to Mütter and to Helvetia, the Swiss-settled village in West Virginia that we call home. The film explores the impact Mütter had on me, her family, her restaurant, and especially her muse, the village of Helvetia.

Nearly sixty years since that skirt cinched Mütter’s waist, it sat on mine as Jonathan and I walked our very first red carpet. In true Murphy’s Law fashion, the half-century-old threads clasping the waist together broke just as we arrived. Panicked, I nearly flagged down drivers passing the Arlington Theatre to ask for a safety pin, a paper clip, anything to hold me together. But then, I saw salvation. Chicken Little, a warmly lit, children’s toy store sat across the street. Without hesitation, Jonathan and I headed to this beacon of comfort and cheer in search of something to bind.

Upon entering the store, two lovely store clerks immediately and compassionately began to search. Digging through drawers and bins, one of the women looked at me calmly and said, “I’m sorry honey. We don’t have a safety pin, but we have a stapler.” My heart soared as I, without question, swished around to embrace the stapling. After hugs adieu and promises to be in debt to them, Jonathan and I waltzed through six red carpet interviews and hundreds of pictures. In true Mailloux form (believe me, the Mailloux’s are notorious for their self-deprecating but hilarious humor) I snuck the secret of my stapled dress into to ears of two reporters. We laughed about my fortuitous wardrobe malfunction.

Born in a Ballroom carries a piece of me. A piece that I hope you can see yourself in. For while it’s quite personal, its themes of resilience, community, loss, and love are universal. This film is especially important to me. It depicts a West Virginia I love and know well: one that is quite often overlooked in the media, the news, and in politics. And while I’d like to let the film tell you itself, I’ll share one last story.

In March 1917, Mütter was quite literally born in a ballroom the night her parents’ Virginia cabin caught fire. She always proudly resounded that she’d been dancing ever since. Along with this charming quip, her story exposes how every one of us is born in a ballroom. What we do after that grand entrance determines how we impact the people and places our lives touch. I hope that Mütter’s story will inspire you to dream and to do. Whether it’s twenty-five, fifty, or ninety-three years, dedicate some of your life to a place. A community. Because dammit you’re important and we need you.  

So, if you’d like to bind yourself to this film for seventy minutes, take a peek at our site, www.borninaballroom.com to see where it will be screening next or to buy the film for your personal collection. I promise the experience will be staple free.

As of this story’s publish date, Born in a Ballroom is set to screen in Charleston, Buckhannon, Fayetteville, Thomas, Morgantown, and Beckley. Check out the Screenings page on the Born in a Ballroom site to check for these dates and more.

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