It was Mother’s Day, 2005. Even though my mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer, the usual dinner preparation circus act was underway: my sister juggling hot casseroles while mixing salad dressings, my dad balancing forks and knives while popping open bottles of wine, my brother wrangling wild and rambunctious children, my mom, the circus conductor, hustling and bustling to make sure that the whole tent didn’t collapse. And then there was me, a man with a movie camera, videotaping the whole ordeal.
“Benjamin, what are you doing? Get that camera out of my face,” seemed to be the general outcry. And what was I doing? Why had I decided that following my family around with a video camera just after my mom had been diagnosed with a stage-four breast cancer diagnosis was a good idea? The truth was that, in terms of my brain or a logical answer, I didn’t know. But, in terms of my heart, and my intuition, I knew it was the thing I had to do. They say that people process grief in different ways. Perhaps this was my way.
But what about the people in front of the camera? Aren’t they grieving, too, and is it fair to stick a camera in someone’s face when they’re sad, or anxious, or angry, or depressed? Are they not entitled to their privacy? The correct answer to the last question is, of course, yes, they are entitled to their privacy. My family could have easily shut down the whole videotaping process if they had so chosen. Why then, did they allow me to continue?
From my perspective, I can only guess why they allowed me to continue. The most likely answer is that I was the youngest child by several years and they had all played with me when I was a baby and thought I was cute and had to let me do whatever I wanted to do because of this. Another reason was that, unlike most documentary filmmakers who must spend weeks, months, and even years gaining the trust of their subjects, I had already established that trust through a lifetime of being a son and brother. And, of course, the fact that they loved me helped.
There’s probably one more reason, though. I was lucky enough to grow up in a creative family that believed strongly in the purpose and power of art. We were a hodgepodge of musicians, painters, actors, poets and writers. They all new my thing was movie making, and they respected my need to make art, even if it meant that they would effectively have to act as my paints.
The other big question is then, “what did I want to accomplish by telling this story?” What good can come of turning people’s turmoil into stories? From a detached perspective, the answer is probably fairly obvious. There is conflict in turmoil and any class on drama will stress how essential conflict is in order for a story to be effective. Conflict, in and of itself, is an empty shell, though. Really what is at the heart of good stories is universal truth and connection. Conflict doesn’t stick to our ribs, lay heavy in our guts, or make our hearts swell up in our chests. Truth and connection do this.
Most of us struggle with the big questions in life: love, death, and the meaning and purpose of our existence. I would be, of course, an utter fool to even pretend to be able to answer these questions. But by embarking on this documentary, I thought I might at least be able to explore some of them and perhaps offer up some corner of the truth.
And then there is the deep-seeded need to connect with one other. We are floating in a vast, deep universe and it’s very easy to feel sometimes as though it is going to swallow us up. This is especially true in times of grief and despair. Knowing that we are not forlorn in these feelings helps to assuage the pain and reminds us of the joy, love, and life we share with humanity and all creatures and life on earth.
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