Filmmaker Sian-Pierre Regis and His Mom on Reclaiming Life Through Travel

In "Duty Free," the filmmaker crowdfunded a bucket list trip for his mother

Duty Free documentary still

In his debut documentary feature "Duty Free," filmmaker Sian-Pierre Regis crowdfunds a bucket list trip for his 75-year-old mother, Rebecca Danigelis, who is struggling to get back on her feet after her employer of several decades eliminates her position and leaves her with only two weeks pay. The film, which arrives nationwide in theaters and on-demand this weekend, highlights the many ways economic insecurity plagues an older generation of workers. It’s also a love letter to the unique joys of traveling with a parent. On the eve of Mother’s Day, Regis and Danigelis sat down with TripSavvy to talk post-pandemic perspective shifts, dairy cows, and the Beatles.

"Nomadland," a film about an older American who loses her employment and turns to a transient lifestyle, just won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. There's a lot of parallels between that film's story and the message in your documentary film "Duty Free." Why do you think this conversation is bubbling to the forefront right now?

Sian-Pierre Regis: I’m so glad you see those parallels. In "Nomadland," Frances McDormand’s character has worked every day. She loves to work, she has a purpose, but she’s not getting paid enough to survive. When my mom was fired from her job, she had six hundred dollars in her bank account. Older people have lived so much life, and they are invisible in society. I’m not surprised at all that the desire to reclaim your life through traveling, especially post-pandemic, is now a national conversation. 

Rebecca Danigelis: You give up an awful lot of your time working, and of course, people have to work. But you start to let your work define you, unfortunately, on many occasions. You start to miss out on the important things. I think a lot of people are seeing this now and starting to think of what they've put off doing because of work.

Sian-Pierre, after Rebecca was laid off, what made you decide that it was time to begin working on her bucket list?

SPR: I don’t even know how the idea came to me. I know that there was nothing that punched me in the gut more than hearing my mom’s voicemail when she called me to tell me she lost her job. I felt like my mom had become invisible in a culture that was leaving her behind. I knew I needed to take her out of that apartment and do everything to make her feel seen again, to make her feel special. I wanted to help her reclaim herself.

Did you feel like going on this trip was the ultimate way to help her recharge?

SPR: It's not lost on me how privileged we are to be able to go on a bucket list adventure. But at the end of the day, walking down the street and baking a cake with someone that you really like can be an item on your bucket list. Riding a horse upstate can make someone’s bucket list. It doesn’t need to be over-the-top. It’s more about who you’re doing it with.

I found it refreshing that one of the items on Rebecca’s bucket list was taking a trip to a dairy farm and milking a cow.

SPR: There’s one moment in the film where you see her on the farm, feeding a little calf, and she’s squealing. I’ve never seen my mom like that ever in life. It was like the ultimate happiness.

RD: It was such a wonderful experience. The farm and the people were so lovely.

Sian Pierre and mom

Did you get to every item on Rebecca’s list?

SPR: One of the things my mom had written on her bucket list was a mystery trip. I was racking my brain trying to think of places, and finally, I called up my friend who lived in Napa, who let us stay on her ranch. We did pottery, we crushed grapes, we drank wine, we did pilates classes. It ultimately didn’t make the film, but it was really memorable.  

RD: I was blindfolded right to the airport. I didn’t know where we were going. He wouldn’t tell me.

Intergenerational travel has gained so much popularity recently. What are some of the things you learned by traveling with your mom?

SPR: The whole experience was really a gift for me. Going to England, for example, to Liverpool, and having my mom walk me through her city and tell me its history, where things used to be, where she saw The Beatles play, was special. I was walking in my mom’s shoes and experiencing the life that she led before and getting a deeper sense of all of these places by seeing them through her perspective.

Rebecca, how many times did you get to see The Beatles live when they were just starting out in Liverpool?

RD: Oh, so many times. We used to leave school on our breaks when I was 11 and go see them. We would talk to them just like I’m talking to you. This was before they got really famous.

Sian-Pierre, there’s a moment in the film where you say that your goal is not to have a bucket list. Do you think younger generations prioritize travel and experiences a bit more than previous generations?

SPR: For my generation, the internet allowed us to dream about what was happening in other places across the world. By way of us being digitally native, we were able to connect with things that are happening in faraway places our whole lives. Instagram, for example, really opened us up to seeing these places and saying to ourselves, ‘I want to be there. I’m going to get on a flight and go there.’ So I think my generation is privileged to be able to grow up with that kind of global view, whereas many of our elders didn’t have that.

We’ve now been at a point where many people have had to put off most travel plans for over a year. Do you think this pandemic might shift people’s perspectives and start making travel experiences more of a priority in their lives?

SPR: Oh yeah. A lot of us have spent this year behind screens. We’ve spent a lot of time with ourselves questioning things. ‘Is this who I want to be? Have I done everything that I wanted to do?’ This pandemic really proved that things could change in an instant. I think come the fall, when things really start to open up, people will be hungry to get out. They’re not just excited to get out from behind a screen; they’re ready to tackle those things that they realized they really want to do and have been putting off.

Rebecca, what do you think the next steps are for us as a country to help make sure our older generations’ futures are secure?

RD: I want to see every place of employment provide a page in its employee handbook specifically stating what will happen on your last day of work. Will the employee receive notice? Will they receive assistance? Will they be provided with the necessary training to move on in their career? Don’t leave people completely stranded. That’s what happened to me. But I’m educated. I speak English. What about the people that worked for me and with me, immigrants who didn’t speak English very well, who didn’t have a Sian-Pierre to take care of them? Where do they go? What do they do? Let people know where they stand.

SPR: As part of our impact campaign, we're working to highlight organizations that are providing that last page in their handbooks or are willing to. We’re calling them our “bucket list companies.” These companies are ahead of the curve and are really embracing older adults and their contributions.

Do you have any special plans for this Mother’s Day?

SPR: We might catch a show at the IFC Center, one of the theaters where the film is playing, and sit with some of the guests.

RD: Sian-Pierre is always surprising me. I'm sure he'll have something for me. Hopefully, it's a blue Tiffany's box.

SPR: Yeah, I think you'll have to add that to your next bucket list. [Laughs]