Beyond Resilience: Sian-Pierre Regis on Centering Care through ‘Duty Free’

Firelight Media
5 min readJul 21, 2021

Editor’s Note: As part of Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience Series, we’re commissioning Firelight-supported filmmakers to share reflections on their own challenges, strategies, and experiences of creating and distributing work during periods of social transformation. In this edition, Documentary Lab alum and 2020 Impact Campaign Fund grantee Sian-Pierre Regis reflects on his experience with the impact campaign for his critically acclaimed documentary feature debut Duty Free.

Image courtesy of Sian-Pierre Regis.

‘Duty Free’ — About the Film

After a 75 year-old immigrant mother gets fired without cause from her lifelong job as a hotel housekeeper, her son takes her on a bucket-list adventure to reclaim her life. As she struggles to find work, he documents a journey that uncovers the economic insecurity shaping not only her future, but that of an entire generation.

Watch the trailer for ‘Duty Free.’

Like many first-time filmmakers, I spent hours trying to put into words why I was compelled to make (and continue slogging through!) my film Duty Free. I knew I was angry about how my mom was fired, angry that she was continuously passed over for new gigs, and angry that no one else but me seemed to care. As I fiddled around with scenes to add or cut from the film, Loira Limbal, Firelight Media’s SVP for Programs, reminded me that a film’s value isn’t always in the film itself. Value and meaning is often found in a film’s long tail, in how a filmmaker places the film within the cultural context and how it compels audiences to action.

I realized that the fire I had to tell this story wasn’t tied up within its frames, but in telling the world that my mom mattered — that her story of invisibility and financial struggle wasn’t hers alone, but shared by millions. My role was to lift her up and show her love, and to use my gift as a storyteller to compel others to do the same — to care.

Our Duty Free impact campaign, which centered around three main themes: economic insecurity, age and ageism, and care, then became baked into our release strategy. At every point of distribution our themes were front and center. At our DOC NYC premiere, where we were a top-grossing film and the most-talked about on social media, we framed Duty Free as a “bucket list buddy-film,” telling audiences to buy a ticket not just for themselves but for the person they “care” about — a mom or dad, son or daughter, friend or peer. We received hundreds of messages on social media about folks co-watching the film and having raw, intimate discussions around caring for one another later in life. Some even sent us their commitments to one another.

As we planned for our theatrical release with Mia Bruno (Fourth Act Films), we worked with Sahar Driver (Firelight Media), Ani Mercedes, and Molly Murphy and Gerry Leonard (Working Films) to identify the best impact partners for this film. To allow for our story to help lead the cultural conversation, we strategically planned our release around Mother’s Day and invited these partners to spread the word with relevant communities. We held a private screening with AARP followed by a pre-taped impact panel discussion for their members. It was the 2nd most-watched private screening in AARP history. Then, we held a private screening with the intergenerational professional platform CIRKEL, a live-streamed “Caregiver Corner” with Caring Across Generations, an Instagram Live conversation with Loira Limbal to talk about mothering and care in her film Through The Night, and an Instagram Live with the celebrity and entrepreneur Paris Hilton and her partner to talk about the power of care in love, in the workplace, and in our communities — not to mention two major panels at the National Council on Aging conference and the American Society on Aging conference.

Filmmaker Sian-Pierre Regis and his mom Rebecca at the ‘Duty Free’ premiere in New York City.

Through these engagements, hundreds of new social media followers, comments, and responses to our post-screening survey poured in. Many of them were women ages 40+ who were moved by our discussions, feeling seen for the first time. Some were dual-caretakers, in charge of caring for both their children and their parents. Others had lost their parents, and shared stories of how they’d shown care. One gentleman told me a story about how he’d read poetry to his mom every Sunday for an hour until she passed on. Another young woman told me how the film compelled her to think about her mom differently, to not begrudge the weekly phone calls from her but to see them as moments to find a deeper meaning between her and her mother. And some 94% of post-screening survey respondents said they have a greater understanding of caregiving and the importance of planning ahead.

Access the ‘Duty Free’ bucket list packet here.

As COVID ravaged elder homes and kept many sheltered in place, we knew that many viewers would be inspired to take adventures with the elders they had long been separated from. So we added a downloadable bucket list sheet to our website so families could commit to checking off items together — big or small! — in the name of care. On the sheet, we added additional bucket list items that support our other two main themes: “Have a conversation about finances,” “Be anti-ageist + inclusive in the workplace,” and “Go on an adventure with someone of a different generation.” Over 100 people have signed up for the packet.

In the months since our DOC NYC premiere we’ve logged thousands of positive comments across social media, hundreds of commitments to elder care, and many hugs in the streets of New York from strangers we don’t know (but love!). We’ve gained press attention from all the major networks, some of the biggest national shows, and nabbed a #1 Apple News spot around the palpable power of care within our film. But, most importantly, we’ve compelled communities to make others visible, to show love, and to tell stories.

Through the summer of 2021, we’ll be hosting more private screenings of the film and planning on an even more robust impact strategy as we near our Independent Lens premiere on November 22, 2021 at 10pm ET. We hope you’ll tune in, and commit to caring too.

Sian-Pierre Regis is a Firelight Media Documentary Lab alum and Impact Campaign Fund grantee. He was also a Film Independent Documentary Fellow in 2019. He is an award-winning journalist, on-camera personality, and cultural critic with an undying love for both pop-culture and social responsibility. He has been a contributor for CNN, HLN, MTV and CBS, covering stories of youth political activism and pop-culture.

To learn more about Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series, please visit firelightmedia.tv/beyond-resilience.

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Firelight Media

Firelight Media produces documentary films, supports nonfiction filmmakers of color, and cultivates audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.