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“It Was a Daily Process of Making Sure She was Comfortable with our Presence”: Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll on Their Doc about Family and Caregiving, América

América

It’s no secret that dedication and responsibility are both required when caring for the elderly. In Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside’s feature documentary América, those two traits are leaned upon heavily, as three adult grandchildren look after their 93-year-old grandmother, who gives the film its title. By resisting sentimentality, the film finds a new kind of emotional heft, burrowing into the daily grind of the specifics of looking after someone who’s always conscious but not always present. At times observational and at times detailed in its tracking of legal battles (the three men’s father is currently imprisoned for not looking after América adequately), América is a portrait of a family who would not quit on their aged matriarch.

Recently annointed a New York Times Critic’s Pick, América is currently in limited theatrical release and will be airing on POV on Monday, October 7th. I spoke with the filmmakers about the winding origins of the project, receiving consent from your subjects, and resisting the label of being branded “activist filmmakers” making “issue-based films.”

Filmmaker: In your 2017 profile for our 25 New Faces of Independent Film, you both credit a mandatory documentary class in college as being the impetus for your appreciation of nonfiction filmmaking. What were some of the films that stood out to you?

Stoll: Well, I should first note that it wasn’t just any mandatory documentary class. It was a mandatory documentary class taught by Jim Klein and Julia Reichert!

Filmmaker: Oh, wow. That’s pretty big.

Stoll: Yeah, the team behind a ton of 1970s leftist documentary classics. As you can imagine, it was [a big deal]. But to your question, the films that mutually inspired Chase and I were both classics, such as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, and more contemporary films that played the festival circuit, like the Ross Brothers’ first feature, 45365. The fact that Bill and Turner Ross were also filmmakers from Ohio really stood out to us. They worked with very rudimentary DV camera tools to capture the stories and images that were all around people like us from the Midwest.

Whiteside: 45365 was a big one, as was Laura Poitras’s first documentary, Flag Wars. Those were both films made within an hour of where we were living and both were proven to be great cinematic art. When you go to film school, you tend to view classic films most likely made with large crews. However, we were able to watch films made by very small crews, and that inspired us to be like, “Okay, maybe we can work in documentary and actually create something.”

Stoll: Coming of age under George W. Bush also had something to do it. We were exposed to the journalistic and political work found within documentaries at that time, films that were responding to this then-political presence.

Whiteside: Do you know the work of James Longley? His films were urgently important at the time.

Stoll: Can you imagine comparing documentaries like Iraq in Fragments or My Country, My Country to anything Hollywood was producing on the war in Iraq at that time? It’s incomparable. 

Filmmaker: Back then, were you looking to tell stories that quite literally hit closer to home?

Whiteside: I’d say that when we started out, somewhere around the end of George W. Bush’s administration and while Barack Obama was running against John McCain, we had political impulses. Our first projects were very much affected by national news. With Bush on his way out, there was a sense of urgency to push for progressive topics we cared about. More than thinking about Ohio specifically, we were focused on the political moment.

Filmmaker: And you were then branded as “activist filmmakers.” Did you care for that term?

Whiteside: When I hear “activist filmmakers,” I ask, “as opposed to what? Filmmakers who have no point of view?” We weren’t working as journalists!

Stoll: Our concept of what it meant to make politically efficacious, effective films has changed quite a bit since 2009. Thinking of myself back then as an “activist filmmaker” is pretty embarrassing, because of some of the more naive premises we were operating under. It makes me bristle a bit. For example, I don’t think there’s any way to describe América as an “activist film.” We were immediately taken, of course, with the characters, the story, and the location. It wasn’t until we got further along did we develop a new interest and understanding of the film’s issues that were profoundly social and political (and have kept us invested in talking about the film a year and a half after its premiere).

Whiteside: There’s a divide between the thread of work we were doing upon just starting out and the work we’re doing now, as we’re releasing América, which is a very different and more mature project. 

Filmmaker: What attracted you to making a film set in Mexico? Originally you had gone with the intent to make something other than the story you ultimately settled on…

Whiteside: Mexico and the United States have this long, complicated relationship, one that’s both unequal and unfair. There was a lot attracting us to this idea (beyond the two countries’ unequal relationship) and we were interested in how tourism can be destructive, disruptive, and deeply, deeply strange. Observing how the United States had left its imprint on another country was originally what got us motivated to go to Mexico. However, the story we ultimately found wasn’t an analysis of Mexican culture or Mexican political life (even though some of those things can be seen the film). The film was anchored by a friendship we had with one of the subjects and was, more than anything, about a family. We’re aware that América can be read as some kind of portrait of modern-day Mexico, but that’s something we wanted to avoid.

Stoll: We started this project while Obama was in his second term. We’d been integrated and so deeply invested in the “progressive news discourse/activist media” thing for so long that we were both personally tired of it. We didn’t see a lot of hope. We’d defeated Mitt Romney and so now what? We wanted to put ourselves in a different context, one that didn’t need to exist in a bigger social, political landscape, one that wasn’t so boxed in by these little national political narratives.

Whiteside: Of course, we didn’t have to go to Mexico to do that. We could have done a lot of different things, but first we needed to get ourselves out of the creative box we found ourselves stuck in.

Stoll: I know this sounds crazy, but more than anything, we wanted to get off the internet. So much of our early work was for an online audience exclusively, and thereby we had all the expectations of an online audience (I mean, we cut our teeth making work for YouTube). Whatever we chose to make next couldn’t be part of something larger. It couldn’t be something that was already in the national news cycle. 

Filmmaker: In addition to our title character, the film is very interested in what the three brothers do for a living. In what ways did you see their occupations as influencing your journey into this story?

Stoll: The reason Diego even found himself in front of our camera for the first time was due to his working in the tourist industry in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where global inequalities and social stratification are blatantly visible. In some ways, it was Diego’s work in the tourist industry in a place like Puerto Vallarta, with such vast disparities of wealth and mobility, that made him [so comfortable with us]. That’s why Diego was able to wheel in front of our camera on his unicycle in the film’s opening sequence. But as our friendship with Diego developed, we found ourselves much more taken and inspired by his spirit and character, and later, the unique path his life takes. It became much less about the context that originally drew us to this place.

Filmmaker: And speaking of occupations, what made you choose to implement those evening group meditation sessions in the film? They allow you to go for a much more orangey, zen-like visual texture that stands as an outlier.

Whiteside: Those were included as more of an editing solution, in that the film is full of dialogue that’s coming at you all the time. We implemented the meditation scenes to give you breadth and space, to let you digest what you’re seeing and what’s happening..

Stoll: It was also a way to get breadth and space for Rodrigo and Cristina. They were taking time away from the stress of the house to chill out. They’re still doing that work today. Diego and Bruno are still working in the circus and Rodrigo and Cristina are still doing their meditative bowl ceremonies.

Whiteside: Embracing those themes was [big for us]. Chase and Erick circa 2015 were deeply cynical and strongly atheist. I mean, still atheist, definitely, but four years ago, we wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with some kind of spiritual or mystical healing practice. It doesn’t hold any appeal or resonance with us instinctively, right? But it was so significant to our subjects, obviously, Rodrigo and Cristina, but then also to Diego and Bruno, and so we [embraced it]. We wanted to try and surrender some of our instincts and aesthetics, to give over to the sensibilities and practices of those we were spending so much time with. Spending that time changed us as people and it allowed us to change the film a little too. I don’t believe in the spiritual power of a meditative bowl ceremony at all, but I do believe in the meditative and spiritual power of cinema, in a way, right? We were lucky that the performances they were putting on, especially as shot by Erick, were really cinematic. Those scenes gave the film cinematic space and breadth that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. 

Filmmaker: The film feels steeped in formalism, focusing on fixed camera placement and wide compositions. The film is rarely handheld, opting for much of the movement to take place within the frame itself. 

Stoll: As with everything in documentary, there’s something practical about it, right? When people are sitting around and stationary, it’s quite easy to put a camera on a tripod and focus on composition. Then suddenly, when things get unpredictable, people start moving around and you can’t shoot things that way, which is also oftentimes when the most important and dramatic scenes are taking place. That means it’s both convenient and frustrating. For a controlled environment, you can bring a stationary, slow and calm style, but you have to be ready to get disruptive when things get urgent.

Whiteside: On a more artistic level, the house had a daily pace to itself. There was a slow, daily pace to life in that house, one that was, in many ways, set by América’s needs and schedule. Everyone would wake up in the morning and do their thing, and then América would wake up, etc. I think our steady, slow, carefully composed, stationary cinematography suited the feeling that I had of spending day after day living in that house, going through its motions and its routines.

Another thing that I was so taken by was the amount of time people spent sitting together in that house, sharing space, sharing life, talking about this, that, and the other, the big and the philosophical. When we, as filmmakers, sat with them, we were witnesses, yes, but we were also participants. These are family members who really know each other deeply in their bones. To be able to watch how the intricacies and subtleties of physical, non-verbal communication unfold was a big deal for us. I think there were times when things got sloppy and I had to hold the camera and do my best. But I think that the style you’re talking about really speaks to the feeling I had of what it’s like to live with them day in and day out for several months.

Filmmaker: Very early in the film, América acknowledges the camera and is unsure of who you are or what’s going on; her grandson attempts to clarify. Was this a daily occurrence? How do you gain the trust of a subject who every day has to be reintroduced to who you are?

Stoll: I think it is a daily trust, right? I have to believe, on some level, that whether or not América could name me or state my relation to her, that she did remember presences and energies and faces, that there was some form of recognition between us. But I can’t know that with any certainty. Every day was a process of telling her who I was and, if she asked, what I was doing and why I had a camera with me. That was a regular occurrence. We were tempted to include scenes of her [questioning us] several more times, just to be transparent about what that negotiation looked like, especially if she was being funny about it, as she is in that first scene. I wish we had kept a few more of those scenes in the film, to be honest, but at least the first scene shows what it looked like and how we tried to be transparent with América, to the extent she has to consent to a project in the long term. It was a daily process of making sure she was comfortable with our presence, that our filming wasn’t causing additional stress or pain. 

Whiteside: It raised our responsibility as filmmakers. Even in the editing room, because we have this profound challenge to give due dignity and humanity to a character who could never fully consent to participating in a long term project the way, perhaps, a traditional documentary character could. Even if we’re getting her permission (being as careful and delicate as we could), we must use the footage in a responsible way. That was a discussion we were constantly having while we were editing the film. What do we have the right to show and how do we show it? It’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide if we did it well and with fairness. I can say that it was always our guiding principle to do so.

Filmmaker: It’s also a film about those logistical concerns, i.e. the daily grind and monotony of elder care (and the delayed court trial occurring off-screen). Not to be too grim, but a lesser film would explicitly be about the final days of this woman’s life, but there’s quite a bit more on the periphery in América.

Whiteside: Despite the fact that caregiving dictates that tough stuff will happen day in and day out, one of the most rewarding things about making the film (and one of the reasons we were inspired to make it at all) was seeing América’s final years play out. Even though she required care, the final years she spent with her grandchildren were probably some of the happiest and most joyful of her life. She was constantly surrounded by people who loved her and that’s what we wanted to focus on. We didn’t want to focus on the physical decline or “final years” of our subject, which is honestly less remarkable than what the brothers were doing when they came together as a team around the goal of taking care of their grandmother.

Stoll: But yes, we wanted to be true to the daily task of caregiving and it was important to show most of these routines at least once. But I think the central conflict of the film isn’t about how hard it is to help your grandmother get out of bed or use the restroom, etc. The film is about the tremendous stresses and conflicts and disagreements that are brought up within this family who want the best for their loved one, a woman who is extraordinarily lucky to have three grandchildren (in this case, men who don’t have children of their own) who can work together to take care of her. Under those unusual and exceptional circumstances, the stress of their responsibilities and negotiation of who’s doing what is ultimately what counts, right? There’s a small fight in the film about, “Oh, you don’t work. Caring for América can’t be counted as work,” and these questions about what counts as work keep coming up. Who’s doing how much work? That’s more important to our film (and in regards to the caring for América) than the quotidian tasks of washing and feeding someone.

Filmmaker: An image we come back to several times is the framed photograph of América and her grandchildren in the 1990s. We first see it set firmly on a wall and later América examines it herself by her bedside. Did that photograph originally jump out at you as a key “visual text?”

Stoll: That comes back to the practical aspect of nonfiction filmmaking, i.e. I shot a woeful amount (or lack thereof) of b-roll within the house, and as a result, we don’t have much to cut in and out to. For the most part, the scenes run right up into each other with minimal fading in and out. That being said, I think that photograph is important. There are so few documents of what América was like when she was younger and her grandchildren only remember as far back as when she was in her mid-seventies. I would love to know what América was like when she was 60, 50, 40, 30, etc. I would have loved to have paid tribute to the life she had lived up to the point where we begin the film. There’s an undeniable power and weight to the inner-connectedness of humans who live with each other and are connected by this strange social institution we call “family” over decades and decades and decades. That photograph always held certain pathos for me and it still does. 

Whiteside: After a few screenings, we’ve had people ask, “Oh, what was the history of América? Why wasn’t her biography or her story included in the film?” And for me, one of the takeaways of the film is that you shouldn’t have to ask that. If people have dementia or they can’t tell you their own story, that doesn’t make them any less worthy of love and attention. It also doesn’t make them any less able to provide joy and fun, day in and day out. The choice to exclude a biographical component was consistent with our allowing the full humanity to someone who is unable to provide that personal information. 

Regarding that photograph, I believe it was the only photo we had of all of them together. They were pretty young in that photo. When you see it, you might wonder, with them being on the cusp of adulthood, what would they be doing today? Well, they’re here with their grandmother and taking care of her. A picture’s worth a thousand words and that one said maybe  ten thousand given the context of the story.

Stoll: That photograph is the inversion of who’s getting care and who’s receiving care throughout the rest of the movie.

Whiteside: For most human beings, to a very significant degree, we’ll both find ourselves in the position of caring for people in our lives and also requiring the care from people in our lives. We give and receive and that photograph displays the balance. 

Filmmaker: The film had its world premiere at the 2018 True False Film Festival, more than a year-and-a-half ago. Now the film is opening for a theatrical run and will be airing on POV next month. This question might be broad, but the answer can be specific: what have you learned about your film over the course of its festival run? 

Whiteside: When we were making América, we thought viewers would find it more challenging or esoteric or even experimental than they ultimately did. We thought only “serious” film audiences would appreciate what we were doing. 

Filmmaker: Why did you think that?

Whiteside: Either to flatter ourselves or to protect our self-esteem if it ultimately turned out that nobody wanted to program it.

Stoll: We’re surprised at the great life the film has received, because we thought of it as a small film. To have it play as many festivals as it has is both surprising and rewarding.The most rewarding part has been hearing from audiences about what the film has jogged from their own memories and experiences of care. We’ve also learned a ton about the challenges facing people who try to give care and the challenges facing people who need it. We’ve become greater activists on the issue of care than we were when we were shooting and editing to get to the place we’ve gotten to now. This was never going to be an “issue film,” but it’s inseparable from the issue. It’s inseparable from the issue for people who live it day in and day out.

In an ideal scenario, the film might have a well-funded impact campaign and we would have spent months doing our due diligence researching specific language to use and preparing ourselves to speak on these issues before the film premiered. Instead, we were literally finishing the film up until 36 hours before the premiere, and we continued to work and change the film for two months after that. As a result, it’s been the audiences who have expanded our understanding into a much broader panorama of what aspirations and ideas the film triggers in them. 

The most gratifying experience was getting to screen the film as part of Ambulante, a really incredible traveling documentary festival based in Mexico. We got to share the film there, not just with your typical film festival audiences, but with screenings in public plazas, at far-flung corners of this or that city, and tiny little towns in the parks; I even attended a screening in a women’s prison.Taking the film back to Mexico, where people are reacting to it without any kind of national prejudice or national filter (like “Oh, the movie is set in Mexico so I guess this must just be a Mexican thing”) or anything like that, has been really refreshing. For people who are not seasoned documentary film audiences to react to the film on a very immediate and personal level has been immensely gratifying. The responses, the feedback, the commentary, the hugs after screenings (especially when Diego was present) was really incredible. It’s where I felt most proud of the film and believed the most in what it meant for those viewing it.

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