ATLANTA — Ruth Blank looked into the camera while kissing Roman Blank, her husband of 65 years.
“He is the love of my life. He is my darling,” she said. Theirs was the model marriage. They had it all — love, business and family.
“No one can outdo the family we have,” said Roman.
But at 95 years old, Roman came out of the closet. Even more shocking is that Ruth, his loyal wife, was aware of the secret for almost 60 years.
While the family adjusted to the life changing news, grandchildren Skyler and Brandon Gross picked up a camera and began filming “On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi,” a documentary that follows the family as they come to grips with the revelation that their patriarch is gay.
“It was important for us to tell this story to document our family, and as a tribute to our family, but at the same time being very honest and real,” Brandon said. “There are some uncomfortable moments in the film which we didn’t shy away from.”
The film opens with scenes of affection between Roman and Ruth, then their daughter Lili asks Ruth a question, “What was the secret Popi told you?” After pretending she doesn’t know, Ruth answers, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The scene foreshadows Ruth’s coping mechanism as she deals with the effects of her husband’s revelation. Roman, on the other hand, is open and honest because he knew it would inspire people, Skyler said.
“While we were filming he was very open with sharing everything and knew it would be shared with audiences like this,” said Skyler. “His hope was for a new generation of people to see what he went through and not have to go through a lot of what he went through.”
Roman even reveals Ruth found out years ago during a brief affair when he was venturing out to visit a man every night. But like most married couples in the 1950s they stuck together and made it work.
Skyler sees this as both admirable and sad.
“I think Brandon and I talk about what the main theme of the film is to us, and sacrifice is a huge part of it, and what they went through together without telling anyone for the greater good of the family, ” Skyler said.
However unorthodox, the family learned to understand that their love was the real thing. As they work through the devastation, the process made the couple even more of an ideal.
“Our family and our extended family looked up to them as a model for a successful relationship,” said Skyler. “My cousin said they were good actors, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think what they had was real and very deep and much more complex than what we imagined until we made the film.”
In a era where 60 percent of marriages end in divorce, a 65-year marriage is considered a success — even if it isn’t 100 percent authentic.
Ruth and Roman met just before the Nazis began to occupy Poland. During that time, it was dangerous to be Jew, gay, or a member of any marginalized group, said Brandon.
When the two met, they fell in love — and though Roman knew he was gay at the time, when deciding whether to commit suicide or remain in the closet, Roman said “I chose to live.”
While filming, he admits he made a mistake by marrying Ruth under false pretenses. He even encouraged her to date other men, but Brandon said Ruth was “old fashioned.”
“She only had eyes for him she was really in love with him and she couldn’t imagine anything else. She had an old fashioned mentality, she was truly in love with him,” Brandon said. “I think that was part of the tragedy is that he was the only man she was with intimately.”
After coming out, Roman attended the Senior Prom at the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center, mentored a young closeted gay immigrant boy and even pushed to move into another apartment.
While the family supported his newfound identity, Brandon said they didn’t realize that it would also affect Ruth. Her dementia worsened and watching her downward spiral is the most heartbreaking part of the film. Though the family didn’t harbor any resentment toward Roman, some viewers find it difficult to hide their feelings.
“There’s been some criticism… I’ve heard audience members quietly shaming him for what he has done because he’s sort of the one to blame,” Brandon said. “But I think what’s more important is them living their true lives and in many ways it was very unfortunate circumstances.”
As Ruth’s health declines, the heart of the story surfaces. Scenes of Roman leaning over Ruth’s bed to kiss her add to their love story. Though life didn’t turn out how anyone expected it, Skyler said they invoked extraordinary strength to keep their family together.
“They said ‘Our grandchildren anchor us for the future,’” Skyler said. “Them willing to give up their personal lives in this sense and then having a huge extended family made it all worth it.”