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Born Out of Grief: Kathy Leichter’s Here One Day

I first found out about Kathy Leichter’s documentary, Here One Day (above), via an email announcing the film’s Kickstarter campaign. Like many independent filmmakers, I receive many such emails. But what set this one apart from the others was the sender, filmmaker/editor (and friend) Pola Rapaport, whose work I greatly admire – and the film’s subject.

Here One Day (screening at IFP’s Independent Film Week, Spotlight on Documentaries) is about Kathy’s mother’s bipolar disorder and suicide. It’s a story about what a person with mental illness does to a family — a story many of us can relate to — and how a family copes and moves on. When I heard about Here One Day, I wondered what it would be like to make that kind of personal documentary? What are the challenges of probing loss so intimately, of revealing a family’s difficult history, of interviewing parents and siblings about matters they would perhaps rather not discuss?

I myself am making a (very different) film which grew out of grief, A Life’s Work (currently in post), about four people who are engaged with Herculean projects they likely won’t see completed in their lifetimes, projects that could have a profound, global impact. I interviewed an astronomer, an architect, a gospel music archivist, and a tree farmer and asked them about their lifelong passion. I was looking for answers about life’s purpose. I think of this film as an extremely personal work even though it isn’t about me or anyone in my family and I’m not it.

I wanted to talk with Kathy about the emotional origins of our films, so I asked Pola to introduce me to her. Here’s some of our conversation about grief, filmmaking and more.

David Licata: When did you realize this was a film you had to make?

Kathy Leichter: If anyone had told me after my mother killed herself in 1995 that I would start making a movie about her and her death nine years later, I probably would have punched them in the face. It took those nine years for the idea of this film and the desire to make it to germinate in me. It began gradually in 2004. My original idea for Here One Day (which I was calling Motherland, at the time) began as a rumination on mother-loss in my family across generations. My father’s mother was killed in the Holocaust. His trauma around her death shaped him in many profound ways, from the career he chose to the woman he married, my mother. I wanted to look at the effects that losing a mother had on a person. I thought I would examine it from a somewhat detached standpoint. I had no idea how deep and personal I would get.

It took several years of shooting before it became clear that what I was doing was really taking a journey to let go of my mother. It’s funny how we trick ourselves into doing things that our conscious mind isn’t ready to accept.

Did A Life’s Work start out being what it is now?

Licata: A Life’s Work came about when I was grieving my mother. During that time I remembered being told in grammar school that medieval cathedrals took generations to construct, and back then I thought that was the craziest thing ever. So the grief and this memory combined and sparked my imagination. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to people who are doing things they won’t see completed in their lifetime? What is their perspective on time, mortality, and legacy? So it started as me searching for an answer to the question, why am I here? Only later on did I realize that the subjects were telling everyone’s story. Sure, they’re involved in these dramatic, outsized projects, like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or building an experimental city in the Arizona desert, but we all check out before we finish our work. I love it when I give people the elevator pitch and they say things like, “That sounds like me and my garage, it will never be organized.” They say it as a joke, but they’re actually spot on!

Leichter: That’s funny. I never considered what people’s reactions would be. But as I started to be “out” about what I was making, I discovered that people often didn’t know what to do when I said that the film was about my mother who had bipolar disorder and committed suicide. Most people get either a pained look on their face or a completely blank look. It’s actually something I am used to now, but at first, I was naively surprised. I thought people would ask me questions, want to know more. It became super interesting material to me and I expected others to reflect that interest. I now realize that there’s still too much fear and stigma around suicide for people to respond fully. That being said, one thing that is very satisfying is that I do get wonderful responses from other individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide — looks of solidarity, awareness, empathy, as if we know each other’s stories, even though each story is different.

Licata: Your previous film, A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay, was a “social issue” film. Here One Day seems like a big departure?

Leichter: A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay followed three individuals in the welfare system in New York City fighting for economic justice. The film is chock full of drama and energy and hope. It made people feel things and when it was over, audiences were jumping out of their seats to get involved and do something.

The lesson I learned on Here One Day is that the personal can be universal and that sometimes it’s best that way. In telling my own story, I had told many other people’s stories, stories about mental illness, suicide, family, love, and loss that needed to be told. At one of my rough-cut screenings, a woman who had lost her 16-year-old son to suicide said, “I want to thank you. In telling your mother’s story, you have told my son’s.” That was so rewarding for me and also so remarkable. My mother killed herself at age 63. She was far from 16! And yet, there are aspects of the story that resonate for so many people for so many reasons.

I’ve also learned from mental health professionals who have seen the film that it is a tremendous training tool to teach how to support families with a loved one who has mental illness. How exciting that the film can be used to help other families with similar situations to our own and to hopefully make things better for them and the person who is ill. Now that’s real social change.

Kathy Leichter with her father, Franz

Licata: Did you ever wonder if the film was too personal to find an audience?

Leichter: I really started out making this film for myself, which is kind of funny because I consider myself to be a media activist at heart. I don’t imagine my work ever being made in a vacuum, but the audience for this film was initially very far from my mind.

As the film took shape in the edit room, I began to realize that I was making something that would fit into my previous experiences as a media activist. It was like a light bulb went off. Suddenly I realized I could use this film in community settings and with NGO’s to raise awareness, reduce stigma, support families, and challenge stereotypes about the mentally ill and suicide. I was so excited! My own healing from the film was already worth all of the effort, but now to have it used all over the world will be such an unexpected reward.

Licata: You said it took nine years from the time of your mother’s death until you started making the film. Did something happen that said, “Now is the time to make this film”?

Leichter: The concrete inciting incident for beginning the film, though very unconscious, was my pregnancy with what turned out to be my second son. I had already had my first son and just assumed naively that my second child would be a daughter. It felt absolutely inevitable. I was sure I would have a daughter. I needed her to heal my mother-loss in some way. I never would have been able to articulate this at the time, still I felt I would be able to repair, recreate, re-do the relationship I had with my mother by having my own daughter. I remember the day I saw the sonogram. My heart sank when it dawned on me that I would not have a daughter. I realized very gradually that my healing would have to take place another way. Eight years since I began making the film, I can honestly say that it has. My therapist and husband both joked, “Thank goodness you didn’t have a daughter! Can you imagine being born with that job over your head—to heal your mother’s grief?”

Do you feel like you worked through your grief by making your film?

Licata: Working on the film distracted me. When I started making it, I was still numb. But the more I worked on it, setting up shoots and interviewing the subjects, the more I became excited about filmmaking, and life. I guess you could say the work, and time, helped me get through my grief.

Your family plays a big role in the film. Were they at all reluctant to participate?

Leichter: They have been incredibly supportive of this project. I am so grateful because I was going to dig up old ghosts whether they liked it or not. I’ve shown the film to all of my family members in the film. They’ve approved every frame.

As a family we have been through some uncomfortable moments together in the process of making this film — on-camera and off — and we’ve gotten through them together. For example, during a scene where we were filming my brother, father, and me going through old boxes of my mother’s things. Deeply buried feelings, like the buried papers and old photographs we were unearthing, resurfaced. Guilt, blame, and resentment that they had put aside in order to have a relationship had resurfaced after almost 10 years.

Licata: That’s a very moving scene.

Leichter: Thanks. This argument between my brother and father turned out to be a very powerful, revealing scene in the film. It was very brave and generous of both of them to let me keep it in. It speaks well for my crew, Kirsten Johnson and Judy Karp, that they were able to just melt into the woodwork and keep filming.

Licata: This brings up an interesting point. In many personal films, the director is also the shooter, but for this project you chose to work with cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. It must have been a real leap of faith to let her into the process with you.

Leichter: From the first frame to the last, I wanted this film to be beautiful. I wanted to express emotion — attachment, longing, love, loss — visually. I knew anything I could shoot would fall dismally short of what I was envisioning. Kirsten and I had been very close friends for a long time and we had worked together on a shorter film prior. When I asked Kirsten to shoot Here One Day I was really asking her to work with me, knowing that I could trust her to join me on the journey, even if I didn’t know exactly where we would be going. Working with Kirsten was really the first step in going public with this story. Opening up to her and to being received so lovingly, without judgment, made a huge difference in what we were able to do together on screen.

Our first shoot together was amazing. We projected slide images of my family onto my pregnant belly, using it as a screen and then filmed me with these images on my body in a dark hallway. We wanted to visually represent the way memories of individuals are passed down across generations, even to a baby in utero. It was beautiful and different than anything either of us had ever seen before.  This set the bar high for all of the shoots that would follow.

Licata: I’m guessing you could say the same thing about the editor, trusting her, letting her into the process.

Leichter: Absolutely. I remember the day I brought my mother’s suicide note into the edit room. This was the culmination of much of the film’s narrative arc — what we had been building to. I wasn’t sure I could include the note, but I knew the film would be better off for it. I’m not sure I had shown the note to anyone, not even my husband. Talk about a sacred piece of paper. So bringing it into the edit room and sharing it with Pola Rapaport, my editor, was a big step. She was so respectful. The note was in a manila envelope. Pola asked if she could look at it, if I wanted to be there when she looked, if I wanted her to take it out of the envelope for me. It was a moment of enormous trust between us that I was able to show the note to her. In that moment I made the decision that it had to be in the film. I knew I was ready, even if I was pushing myself a bit past my comfort zone. Editing the film was full of many such moments of baring my soul, sharing family dynamics, and trusting that this was good and OK.

Licata: You use home movies in the film very effectively. I’m using some as well, and I have to say, I find working with them emotionally difficult. I imagine editing this film was emotionally fraught.

Leichter:  Actually the biggest surprise about editing this film was that it was incredibly fun! When people see almost finished versions of the film, they often look at me and my editor and say, “Oh, you poor things. It must have been so hard to make this film.” But instead, it’s been just the opposite. The film was about such a serious subject that Pola and I often needed a good laugh! We would crack jokes until we cried, finding the humor amidst the tragedies of family dysfunction, shattered dreams, and even suicide. I’d go back and do it all again if I could. It was such a blast.

Licata: There’s a line early in the film that I love, “It’s time for me to stop being the keeper of the Leichter museum.” To me it says there’s one last thing I have to do, make this film, and then I can let go. How much of this film was about exorcism.

Leichter: I love that line too. Many of us are keepers in some way of our family’s story. Many of us hold the keys to our own museums, big or small. For me, this has been a real truth, since I live in the apartment where I grew up, which is full of things of the past. My grandparents were keepers and my parents, too.

The same way the film was a vehicle for me to face certain taboo subjects with family members, making Here One Day was also a way for me to approach memories, places, and objects that I was afraid to look at and yet that I knew I needed to examine to move forward. Would I have ever transferred the eight hours of Super 8 footage that lay buried in my parents closet had I not been making this film? Would I ever have showed my mother’s suicide note to thousands of people if it weren’t for this film? No. In making these objects public, they lost some of their power and sacredness, which I guess is what I wanted and needed. They would no longer hold such sway over me. I guess that’s one kind of healing.

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