The Hardest Film Shoot I Ever Produced
Faye with her brother Gordon and nephew Mitchell
The hardest film shoot I ever produced was one I was mostly absent for.
Just before Shavuot two years ago, I sat shiva for my brother, Gordon. He had suffered for 14 months with terminal cancer, holding on through a combination of remarkable support from his shul community, high-level care at Johns Hopkins, and his iron will to imprint more memories of himself in his three very young children’s minds.
As much as I’d tried unconsciously to prepare myself mentally for his death, I was still shocked and traumatized during his last week of life. Odd details stuck with me: the brightly colored flowers on the uniform of my favorite ICU nurse, the one with unbelievable stamina and kindness who I swear worked two 12-hour shifts in a row on my brother’s last day; the pronounced rush of cortisol and adrenaline I felt as I entered his hospital room each morning that week; the white alphabet letter board on which he laboriously tapped out the sentence “Can I please have seltzer? Just a little.” And the surprisingly permeable line between life and death, one I always believed would be so much clearer and sharper. How could it be that on Friday morning May 10, 2013 his doctor entered with a group of interns, shook my brother’s hand and said “Hello, Mr. Lederman how are you feeling today?” And on that same Friday afternoon, he died. How could it be? And yet it was.
In her memoir about living in Tuscany, author Frances Mayes writes about a friend dying, noting that after the excitement and hubbub of death, there is just blankness. I felt a terrific and terrible blankness, a vacuum of emptiness and stillness that replaced the perpetual motion required during illness. Gordon was gone and the family members’ task had suddenly transformed to the act of being still, quiet, unhinging ourselves from responsibility and caregiving and giving ourselves over to prayer, contemplation and grief.
Yet I awoke the day before the funeral, still feeling frenzied and anxious. A week earlier, before traveling to this last visit, I’d emailed my film-making cooperative to ask advice on filming with my brother before his death. During his illness I’d wanted to capture footage to give to his children, yet I’d never found the courage to ask him. I deeply regretted it, but somehow it had always seemed to me like a horrible way of saying, without words, “You’re dying, so let’s get some memories on camera.” It was the eleventh hour when I queried my colleagues; they responded with generous wisdom about their experiences filmmaking with terminally ill people. They offered suggestions for capturing meaningful footage for my brother’s kids, wife and our parents. But it was too late. My brother was far from the state in which I wished to preserve memories of him.
As a film producer I’m wired to prepare for back-up scenarios, so my email to colleagues had also included a second question: what did they think of the crazy idea of filming during shiva? Too late to record my brother, so might this be the next best thing? How off the wall or disrespectful of the sacrosanct nature of shiva would it be to introduce a camera into that context? My mentor phoned me with some sage advice: ask the neighbors if I could turn their home into an extension of the shiva. Put a big sign on the door explaining that this is a sacred space to share stories to be recorded for the family, to celebrate on camera who Gordon was and preserve the details for his spouse and children.
On that day before the funeral, I poured myself into the bizarre job of producing a film shoot. I knew it was a crutch to help me cope in the moment, to give me something to do, to organize, to manage during that liminal space just before shiva. It felt irreverent, but the outcome could only be positive, I reasoned. Whatever material we managed to shoot would be welcome years from now.
I quickly networked to find a local, trusted cinematographer and assistant. My brother’s dear friends introduced me to a local film producer who also happened to be friends with my brother. He offered to work for free. I asked the neighbors if anyone could offer us space, and one generously gave over her large porch for the entire shoot, morning ‘til late night.
The result was astounding. Just as my brother’s community had rallied around him during his illness, I felt a sense of community that buoyed this effort. The film crew summoned impressive energy, filming late into the evening without a complaint. The camera assistant was so touched by some of the interviews that he teared up several times while recording audio. With a little gentle nudging from me and some careful escorting of shiva visitors over to the neighbor’s house, we recorded more than seventy friends’ and family’s moving stories about my brother – including his six-year-old son, his in-laws, our parents and several high-powered Washington colleagues who spoke from the heart about my brother’s professional accomplishments – now stored on a hard drive waiting to be viewed and shared down the road.
While I questioned taking on this challenging shoot during a moment of extreme emotional turmoil, in retrospect I’m so glad I allowed myself to take the risk. Something I feared might upset people and potentially bump up against tradition, turned out to be a unique and reverential blessing in its own way.
Faye Lederman, WGFA (Class 13), is a documentary film producer and Jewish educator. She holds MA degrees in documentary film and Judaic Studies from UC Berkeley and NYU. Her independent films include Women of the Wall, about the Jerusalem women’s prayer group; The New Old Country, about memory, nostalgia and history on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; A Good Uplift, about a bra store in the same neighborhood; and Hold the Soup, about a matzo ball eating contest. Her current film is about toxins and children’s health (www.missedconceptionsthefilm.com). Faye has worked extensively as an educator with her films, running workshops for organizations including UK Limmud, Lishma, and several chapters of the New Israel Fund, Hadassah, Hillel and United Jewish Communities. She has taught as a core faculty member at the Skirball Center and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Info about her work is at www.squeezethestone.com and you can email Faye at email@example.com.