Film

Warrior Voice Emerges in ‘Donna’

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Standing on the red carpet hours before the world premiere of “Donna Stronger Than Pretty,” Jaret Martino and his mother, Donna, talked about the seven-plus years it took to make their feature film, and the half-a-lifetime it took to live it.

In less than 24 hours, the film would earn Best Film, Best Director (Martino), and Best Actor (Kate Amundsen) at the Cinema at the Edge Film Festival in Santa Monica.

Jaret Martino, Donna Martino, Patty Branch
Jaret Martino, Donna Martino, Pat Branch


But before that occurred, screenwriter Pat Branch joined the Martinos in the discussion of the film, which depicts Donna’s journey through an abusive relationship, her rise out of financial hardship to get a college degree, and emergence as the heroine (who ultimately inspired her son to make this feature film).

“It’s of course a little nerve-racking,” said Donna, who flew from her New York home to the Los Angeles premiere. “I’m just very proud,” she said, glancing toward her son, who honed his craft on film shorts and commercial projects.

Martino made the decision to tell his mother’s story, his first feature, after producing numerous projects that he says “create awareness for subjects deserving attention,” through his company, Jaret Martino Productions.

“I watched a lot of people share their vulnerable stories,” he said, “and through their strength, I was inspired to share our own family’s story.”

Martino wrote a first draft of the story nearly eight years ago, then enlisted Branch to co-write the script. 

In the film Donna, played by Kate Amundsen (“Shameless,” “Westworld”), has a whirlwind romance with Nick (indie actor Anthony Ficco), the man she would eventually marry. 

Screenwriter Pat Branch, center, with cast and crew at CATE fest.

Nick comes from a well-to-do family, and Donna, who had a more modest upbringing, supports his hopes and dreams. While raising three young children in what appears to be a comfortable home, the growing physical and emotional abuse is compounded by Nick’s philandering. Eventually, his criminal business deals land him in jail.   

With few resources, Donna starts over with her kids in a cramped apartment. It was her strength and determination during this time that made a lasting impression on her young son.

From Short Film to Feature

“We did a stage reading,” Martino said, “then we premiered the short the day of the Women’s March in 2017, at the Sundance Film Festival at the Indy Lounge.”

The short film laid the groundwork for the feature, allowing the filmmakers to partner with more than a hundred companies that “aligned with the message,” he said, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Key to telling his mother’s story were the journals that Donna had written that chronicled her relationship with Nick from beginning to end.

“Reading the journals was the first time I truly realized the depth of Donna’s story and how important it was to protect her and her privacy while I told such an intimate story,” said Branch.

Gaining access to the journals not only gave Branch a deeper understanding of what Donna experienced, but also, “I got to see the mindset” that allowed Donna to pull herself out of a destructive relationship. 

Donna said that seeing her story on-screen wasn’t easy, but she believed it was necessary. 

“At first it was a little unsettling because I had to look at everything all over again,” she said. But “it was so important to come out of that shell I was in for those years. [She saw] the importance of sharing the story and having everyone understand that I’m not a victim I’m a survivor, to help other people that are in this situation.” 

Asked how she felt about her son setting out to tell her story, then finally emerging with the finished product, she laughed and said she wanted to refer to her journal. 

“Again, there are no words that can describe how proud I am of him,” she said. “He was always the type of person where once he knew what he wanted to do, he just put blinders on and went out and did it. I’m not surprised that the film has gotten to this point.” 

A Timely Topic

Domestic abuse and violence against women are, of course, timely subjects in America. After premiering the short the day of the Women’s March in 2017, the feature film premiered within days of the Harvey Weinstein verdict (the film executive was convicted on rape allegations, which came to light during the #MeToo movement).

“Yeah, it kind of all unfolded as we were making our way in using our voice. A lot of other women, the collective spirit aligned,” Martino said.

There was some pressure from Hollywood executives, Martino said, to sensationalize Donna’s story. They “wanted to change the story, give Donna a gun,” he said.  

But he argued, “her strength was her voice, and I was adamant about that. That’s not the way my childhood looked. My mom played both mother and father so beautifully.” 

One of the reasons he wanted to make the film, he said, is because he didn’t have anything like it growing up. 

“I wanted to make a film that I wish I had as a kid,” he said, so “it can get to other children.”

His mother concurs. 

“Watching it unfold,” said Donna, “I just knew, deep down in my soul, it would take off.” 

For more information about the film or future screenings, look for “Donna Stronger Than Pretty” on social media, or visit the website.

Journalist Laurie Schenden covers the entertainment industry, with many of her notable celebrity interviews appearing in the Los Angeles Times and other national and international publications. As a longtime columnist and feature writer for the LA Times, she also covered events and California destinations for the lifestyle, Outdoors and Travel sections. Laurie Schenden's international pieces include the long-running Where Are They Now celebrity feature for Spotlight Magazine, published in five languages. Laurie has also contributed to numerous documentary films, and is currently producing a documentary for her own company, Saving Grace Films.

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