The Dressmaker

: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production


THE DRESSMKAER follows three generations of women from the Gatenio family from New York, Sephardic Jews with roots both in Bulgaria and Greece, as they grapple with the family’s complex history as told from the perspective of the 92-year-old matriarch and lifelong dressmaker Stella Gatenio.


THE DRESSMAKER  unfolds across three generations of women with Sephardic Jewish roots in Bulgaria and Greece, two countries with longstanding animosity. During WWII Bulgaria became an ally to Germany, and occupied Northern Greece and Macedonia where many Sephardic Jews lived. When, in 1944, Stella Mashiah, a Bulgarian Jewish woman, met and fell in love with Carlo Gatenio, a Greek Jew, their marriage brought into their daily lives the conflict that bedeviled those two communities. A year earlier under public pressure, Bulgarian authorities had saved the lives of their own country’s Jews (although subjecting them to harsh living conditions and enforced labor) but these same authorities deported the Jews of the occupied territories.

Consequently the Gatenio family’s story incorporates in a unique way the dramatically different experiences these two communities had of the Holocaust: 11,343 Jews from Northern Greece and Macedonia perished in the death camp at Treblinka, among them the parents of Carlo Gatenio, David and Rachel, and his two sisters Stella, 12, and Beatrice, 18. Carlo survived in a labor camp, while his brother Isaac escaped to Athens. However, thanks to the so-called “Bulgarian Rescue,” Stella’s entire family survived deportation and immigrated to Israel in 1948 as part of one of the most successful aliyahs from Europe.

After the destruction of their small community in Drama, Greece, Stella and Carlo Gatenio immigrated to America in 1951 as refugees. Along their journey a constant companion was Stella’s Singer sewing machine. A tool for survival through deportation, resettlement, labor camps, and immigration, it became Stella’s symbol of hope, entrepreneurial spirit and optimism: wherever she went, Stella soon became known as The Dressmaker. Since age 16, and all through the war, Stella had used her budding sewing skills to help feed her family by sewing dresses in exchange for food. While in Greece she sewed Greek flags, which her husband sold. Once in the US, she would mend “seconds” from Brooklyn clothing factories to sell in the small store she and Carlo opened on Orchard street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.Whether in Bulgaria, Greece or New York, Stella used her Singer sewing machine to make life go forward.
But along the way, Stella and Carlo always embodied the drama of the Jews from Bulgaria and Greece, and the many unresolved questions as to why their families had such a different fate during the war.

For years Stella didn’t talk about her own Holocaust experiences with her children. Surrounded by Greek Jewish relatives and friends, she listened to the frequent discussions of the tragic fate of the Greek Jews, but heard virtually nothing about the suffering of the Bulgarian Jews and why or how they were spared. Stella and Carlo worked really hard to forget about the past and to move on with their lives: after all they immigrated to America to give a better life to their children. But Stella’s Greek friends often asked her: “Why are you still alive? Why did your family survive and ours didn’t?” Though this question caused her a great deal of pain, she chose to remain silent. When Carlo passed away, she decided to talk.
Today, at 92, Stella along with her daughter Shirley and granddaughter Estee seek answers into the family’s complex, unresolved history, after 70 years of silence.
Deeply moved by her stories, Shirley and Estee visit Greece, Bulgaria, Poland and Israel to come to terms with the family’s history. One important question informs their journey: “My mother’s side of the family came from Bulgaria, and my dad’s side came from Greece. On one hand I am very grateful that Bulgaria did save its Jews, but that tells my mother's side of the story. And my father’s side of the story is that the Bulgarians, who occupied Northern Greece are also responsible for the deportation of his family. And how do you reconcile those two stories?”


Finding my own voice has been a long and challenging journey, one that is ongoing. Growing up in my native country of Bulgaria during the communist period, I was immersed in a culture that was all about the collective and very little about the individual. When in 1994 I immigrated to New York, I was eager to discover my individual voice. And America was a great place for that as it is all about the individual freedoms. My first years here were an exciting but challenging time. It also became clear to me that in America, which valued individual freedoms, the voices of women and minorities were not as loud and as free as I expected. Though at first I studied psychology, I found documentary filmmaking to be closer to my way of self-expression. Documentary filmmaking gave me the tools to explore the inner life of real people, and to use my imagination to discover what motivates them.
Out of these experiences my goal soon became to discover and shine light on women whose stories have been buried or silenced for a long periods of time.
In the beginning, I was still very much attached to my old identity. I made my first film, Binka: To Tell a Story About Silence, about the first woman film director in Bulgaria, Binka Zhelyazkova, and her battles with the communist censorship, which often led her work to be underappreciated and unrecognized. That was an empowering experience but the question for me remained: how do I translate my new life in America into my work. In reality my POV was that of an immigrant woman. Along the way I became a filmmaker and a mother, and that aspect added additional complexity as I was trying to build a career as a filmmaker in a new and challenging environment for women filmmakers in particular. One might think I was simply naïve but I believed that my voice is an important one and persevered. Then I came upon the amazing story of Stella Gatenio, a Bulgarian Jewish woman from New York. What attracted me to Stella--a Holocaust survivor, mother, entrepreneur, expert dressmaker, and above all, natural storyteller-- was her determination to tell her story -- and be heard. She belongs to a generation of women who in many cases were silenced by their partners.. It was her Greek husband’s decision to immigrate to America, his tragic story that dominated the family’s history. Throughout their life together, she wanted to talk about her own experiences, both as a child and a Holocaust survivor, but for many reasons she felt that she couldn’t. Often she would bury her face in a pillow and cry herself to sleep when what she really wanted to do was to scream. Stella’s story is the story of many women who silently endured war, deportations, loss, immigration, and resettlements but kept going, even though in many cases they were the ones that kept the family going.
Her relationship with her Singer sewing machine was amazing to me. Instinctively she knew that this was her survival tool, and she held onto it for dear life.
Stella not only has a compelling story to tell, she tells it with a great sense of humor and self-irony. Those qualities have helped her see the bright side to life no matter the difficulties she faced. Wherever the family went she would set up the sewing machine and start all over again.
For me Stella’s voice is one worth discovering and listening to.



Elka Nikolova - Writer/Director/Producer

Since graduating from the New School in 2000, Elka Nikolova has worked in the film and television industry in New York City. Her 2006 documentary film “Binka: to Tell a Story About Silence” premiered at the MOMA in 2007, and received the audience award at the SEEFest in LA in 2007. In 2017 Nikolova completed the documentary “Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon ”, which she co-produced and edited. “The Dressmaker” is her second documentary film as a Director /Producer.

Vanyo Georgiev - Cinematographer

Since graduating from the New Bulgarian University in 2000, Vanyo Georgiev worked first in the Bulgarian film and TV industry as cameraman and DP until immigrating to the US in 2006. Since 2007 Vanyo has been working in the New York City film and television industry as a cinematographer and lighting director. “The Dressmaker” is the second film he is collaborating on with Elka Nikolova.


MIroslav Gaidoshik - Cameraman/ Editor

Since graduating from the National Film School in Sofia Bulgaria in 2001, Miroslav Gaidoshik has been working in the Bulgarian film and TV industry as a cameraman, and an editor on various television shows and documentary films.


Fernanda Rossi - Writer

Internationally renowned writer and speaker Fernanda Rossi has collaborated in more than 500 fiction scripts, documentaries, proposals and fundraising samples. Two documentaries were nominated for the Academy Award®, and another was nominated for Best Script for the Wildscreen Panda Awards. Many others screened and were awarded at festivals such as IDFA, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sundance, DOCNYC and broadcast on PBS, HBO and BBC. The treatments she has written won funding from ITVS, NYSCA and the National Film Board of Canada.

Ivanka Gezenko - Bulgarian National Archives, Specialist, Project Advisor

Angel Chorapchiev - Scholar, Yad Vashem, Project Advisor

Vasilis Ritsaleos - Scholar, Greece, Project Advisor

Vadim Altskan - USHMM, Scholar, Project Advisor


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