Director Alex Halpern on NINE GOOD TEETH

Sicilian: Sull' a morte non c' * rememdio.
English: Only in death is there no remedy.
--Sicilian proverb

Nine Good Teeth was born out of a desire to preserve a unique viewpoint of my family's heritage-an oral history as told to me by my grandmother Mary ("Nana") over the years. The more immediate impetus came from the fear of my grandmother dying. Mary had often spoken of a gypsy she encountered in her youth, who predicted that she would die at the age of 96. As her 96th birthday approached, my wife urged me to adopt any means necessary to make the film. I remember she just said, "Start making this film or Mary will die while you're still talking about it!"

From the moment I arrived with my camera in hand on her doorstep in Lynbrook, Long Island, Mary reminded me of the gypsy's predication. Although I'm not as superstitious as my grandmother is, I definitely share her sense of humor; the same sense of humor that I'm convinced has kept her alive for so long! At that moment at her door, I realized that the race against my own clock-to finish the movie before she died-had begun.

It's important to point out that for Sicilians and Sicilian Americans, death is an underlying theme of life. Maybe it has something to do with the historical facts of the island or the physical contrasts of the landscape. That's not to say that Nine Good Teeth is about death; it's more a celebration of life and living it to its fullest so that when you do finally leave this life, you go without regrets.

Sicilian: I guai della pigniata sabe sol' o cucchiao.
English: The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon.
--Sicilian proverb

It was very important for me to see Mary in her totality. I certainly didn't want to cause any embarrassment to anyone in the family by revealing darker or more lurid aspects of their history. At the same time, I didn't want to sugar coat the facts.

In a media driven culture which subsists on a gluttonous diet of sensational, lurid tales from behind everyone's bedroom doors, the idea of "family secrets" seem to be passing into our collective cultural past. Being the second of thirteen children born to Sicilian immigrant parents, my grandmother has been the repository of "family secrets" and myths extending back over 150 years. It was fascinating to me how she imbued all her mementos and possessions---photos, journals, trinkets and seemingly meaningless objects--with a sense of personal history.

As much as I thought I knew about my grandmother, I discovered that there was so much I had never seen nor heard. I found out that as good a grandmother as she's been, motherhood was not necessarily her first calling, that in fact she was a frustrated artist whose only regret is that she would rather have been a singer than a housewife!

Italian: Quest' * la vita e qui il gioire, un' ora di abbrezzo e poi moire.
English: This is life and this is joy: an hour of embracing and then to die.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has captivated anyone with whom she has come into contact with. Everyone seems touched by Mary's presence. She really seems to have that effect on people. It's this combination of absolute love and pure humor, as well as a respect for culture and art. My late uncle Tommy's college friend Jack Kerouac (who also dated my mother for a time) would often sleep over at her house in Long Island. He loved her black coffee and wrote about the family in The Town and the City. When I was in high school, my friends and I would go to her house for dinner. My friends would fall in love with Mary and start visiting her on their own. This was something that I watched happen over and over again. She adopted them into her extended family.

Italian: Il pecato nascosto * mezzo perdonato.
English: The sin that is hidden is half forgiven.
--Sicilian proverb

I always knew Mary would be an excellent subject for a film. During the filmmaking process, I discovered that my initial instinct about the universal appeal of Nana's story--as matriarch, grandmother, mother, wife, lover and daughter of Italian immigrants--was correct. I trust that people will find within her story, spanning the course of three centuries, the reference to their own family narratives. As documentarians continue to formulate new ideas about filmmaking, storytelling and character, perhaps we will discover that our immediate heroes are actually ordinary people whose everyday achievements are the source of their heroic identities.