You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Documentarians Find Hope in Subjects’ Final Moments

It’s hard to think of many more delicate propositions 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 one also has 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 audiences and subjects alike, 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 country 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 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 taken 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.’ ”

Ebert has similar feelings about “Life Itself,” and notes that repeated viewings 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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • 'Talking About Trees' Helmer Suhaib Gasmelbari

    'Talking About Trees' Director Suhaib Gasmelbari Receives Variety MENA Award

    Suhaib Gasmelbari, whose Sudanese documentary “Talking About Trees” premiered in the Berlinale’s Panorama section, received the Variety Middle East and North Africa Region Talent Award Saturday at the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt from festival director Intishal Al Timimi. Variety critic Jay Weissberg, who selected the honoree, said that it is not usual that [...]

  • Josefina-Molina

    Josefina Molina: Still Battling After All These Years

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — She isn’t done yet. The battling character of Josefina Molina, winner of Spain’s 2019 National Cinematography Prize, was glimpsed in her acceptance speech at the San Sebastian Festival on Saturday. She used part to thank those who had given crucial help, such as, among women, editors Nieves Martin (1981’s “Función de Noche,” [...]

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content