The Need to Tell
We’ve all had those benchmark moments in our work, when something clicks, tugs at our heart, we suddenly come face to face with the essence of why we chose a particular field. In my case, I was in a hospital room interviewing someone when it suddenly became clear, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.
It was during the filming for the documentary for a wonderful family. I’ll just call them the B. family. The focus of the biography was the four siblings: two sisters and two brothers. They were all the age of grandparents, had lived fascinating, disparate, and rich lives, (from Woodstock hippie to Nixon campaigners) and it was time to record their stories and the family’s history so the younger generations could know it too. But the eldest brother was not well.
It was November. The interview of all the siblings was to take place on a chilly afternoon during a family reunion, just days after Obama was elected. But at the last minute, I got a call from the family: the eldest brother was now in the hospital, desperately ill with a mysterious disease. The family had to cancel.
In film production, schedules can change on a dime. A cloud passing the sun can halt a shoot. Yet in this kind of moviemaking — documentary filmmaking — there is so much at stake. And I’m trained to go wherever the story takes me, whether it’s the far reaches of Alaska, an ancestral homestead, or a hospital room. I'll climb a mountain to get to the person telling their story. That’s the thing about finding the truth: you have to go where it lives.
I remember the touch and go nature of all the arranging as the siblings and the family debated: should we proceed with interviewing the siblings, and include the eldest brother? Should we not?
We all decided to move forward. The moment was upon us: all the siblings were finally in one city. Underlying that decision was something no one wanted to really come out and say, but it was there: If we don’t’ get the story now, we never will. When someone passes away, whatever they didn’t get to say is gone forever too.
We interviewed the two sisters and the other brother, who did a wonderful job focusing, concentrating, though their hearts were heavy. Their thoughts were on the fourth brother – the family patriarch – in the hospital, fighting for his life.
The next day we arrived at the hospital. The room was quiet, the sounds of machines working, the comings and goings of nurses outside. The oldest brother, in bed, was certainly weak, his mind and body overwhelmed by the seriousness of his illness, all his energy focused on it. But still, there was an unmistakable spark of light in his eyes. And as I turned the camera on him and we started rolling, something amazing happened. He came to life.
This man, who had had an adventurous life and a remarkable, illustrious career, was also the family historian. He was the sole keeper of all the details on past generations going back to the 1800s. And as I asked him questions for the interview, he transformed, energy filling him. He had to, he wanted to — unravel his family’s story — and all of it. He sat up in his bed, and began recounting his life on the rough side of town in Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1930s. The details were fabulous, and precise. And he was taking care of us: making sure we got it right, entirely focused, and having a joyful time. He was animated, smiling, and he insisted that we keep going, keep going — for six hours. He recounted how the family had all wound up in the United States, how he had built his own career and he reflected that same sharp intensity and lively warmth I saw in his siblings.
We sat with him until it was dark outside and we were running out of tape. Still, he wanted to talk. Nurses began coming in, first mentioning, and then suggesting, and then insisting that he had a treatment scheduled and it was time for him to stop and us to leave. But even the nurses were impressed by how he came to life, and touched by what they heard. Then it was time to go. No ifs ands or buts about it.
We packed up, struck by the life force we had just witnessed, by the incredible need for this man to tell his story — a need that had seemed to raise him above his own infirmity not just for a moment, but an entire day. It was something profound and remarkable. I had far more material than I could ever use, but I had not been able to stop filming. He knew, and I knew, that this was more than just looking into a camera and talking about lives already lived so long ago. It was an urgent, heartfelt matter of passing on a legacy, his last chance.
Looking back on the footage, everyone was shocked by how lucid and clear he was, entirely engaged in telling his story. His wife and siblings told me that was his “last best day” and thanked me profusely for working with them. I’d given them the opportunity to preserve all this man’s knowledge, his wisdom, and also his incredible zest and enthusiasm for life. I told them: all in a days’ work. I should be thanking you. And it taught me an invaluable lesson: make sure to get that all important interview, no matter the odds.