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Documentary Filmmakers Take Sensitive Approach to Illness and Death

It’s hard to think of a more delicate proposition for a documentarian than filming a subject in the final stages of terminal illness. As a filmmaker, one needs to be unsparing in documenting the reality in front of the camera, yet also have a responsibility not to exploit subjects, or intrude on a family in moments of such grief and difficulty.

But when done right, the result can be a gift to both audiences and the subjects, and three documentaries this year offered master classes in striking that balance: Steve James’ “Life Itself,” which chronicled Roger Ebert’s final days with his wife, Chaz; “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” in which James Keach followed the star on his final tour after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; and “Keep on Keepin’ On,” Alan Hicks’ film on the mentorship between nonagenarian jazz trumpeter Clark Terry and blind young pianist Justin Kauflin.

For Keach, improvisation became key, as he started filming with the intention of following Campbell on tour for five weeks. He ended up staying on the project for 2½ years, capturing 151 shows, as well as numerous trips to the hospital and personal moments involving Campbell, his wife, Kim Woollen, and children, who played with him on tour.

“It was a natural progression, sparked by the fact that Glen and Kim asked us to stay on,” Keach says. And in a strange way, his position as a dispassionate outsider in intimate moments — he didn’t know Campbell prior to production — strengthened the bond between him and his subject.

“Glen and I became very close just because I was someone who would talk to him directly about having Alzheimer’s,” he says. “It’s like when somebody dies, and instead of pretending it didn’t happen, you say, ‘You must really miss them.’ You talk about it, you let the elephant enter the room. I would start off conversations by saying, ‘So, what did you forget today, Glen? How’s the memory?’ And at first people would be like, ‘What are you doing, man? That’s really uncomfortable.’ But Glen would say, ‘No, I’m fine with this.’

“Because he knew what he was up against. He knew what Alzheimer’s was going to do to him, but he wasn’t afraid of it.”

“Life Itself” helmer James was similarly caught off guard by the way his project developed, with Ebert’s illness taking a turn for the worse as filming was still in process. Chaz Ebert recalls the day she and Roger learned that his cancer had returned, a revelation that forced them to ask James to leave the rest of his crew outside while shooting.

“Even as we were talking about it, and Roger was sitting there with a twinkle in his eye, I think he knew that he wouldn’t be around to see the film,” she remembers. “I was holding on to hope that he’d still be here three more years. And when I watch it, I see that moment when the camera shifts back to me, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to react. Why does he have the camera trained on me right now?’ ”

“The camera sees all,” James says with a gentle laugh. “But I like to work small because it is about intimacy. And it’s just as important to have nice people on your crew, because they need to bond with and get along with the subjects just like I do.”

Common to all three projects is the obvious sense of trust required, and the need for a filmmaker to repay it.

“The family trusted that we’d make the right choices, and I think we did,” Keach says, noting the special significance the film has achieved for Woollen. “Glen isn’t really able to communicate with her anymore. He can say a few things, and he still recognizes her, but she told me she feels like the film is a warm blanket wrapped around her. She said, ‘I can watch it over and over because up there on the screen he’s with me.’ ”

Chaz Ebert has similar feelings about “Life Itself,” and shares that her experience of following the film to festivals helped demarcate important stages in the grieving process.

“One time I was sitting in the theater watching it, and it had been some months, and I noticed that I felt different,” she says. “In the first months, I would just sit there and cry; seeing him on the screen in my grief, I could only cry. And then I got to the point where I could watch it and start noticing other things: Really laughing at the ‘Siskel and Ebert’ parts, or rolling my eyes when his old bar buddies are talking about the psycho women Roger used to date. When I got to that point, I realized that this movie is a gift.”

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