Hot Docs 2020 Selection: Love & Stuff Interview with Judith Helfand


By: Amanda Guarragi 

Love & Stuff  is a deeply personal documentary on motherhood and the cycle of life. Peabody Award winning filmmaker Judith Helfand, documented her terminally ill mother’s final moments, at home-hospice before she passed. In this feature, Helfand continues the story that she began two decades ago, with Healthy Baby Girl (Sundance, Peabody 1997) through these films, Helfand adds emotional layers, by openly discussing her own traumas, addressing grief by using dark humour and reflecting on the power of family.

Judith and her mother, just wanted more time to spend with each other. Time is something so valuable and we often take it for granted. “There’s so many things that she probably wanted to tell me, that she couldn’t find the language for, it’s really hard to say, here is my life long lesson, here’s what I want you to know before I die, here’s what I think you need to know.” said Helfand about having discussions with her late mother. Watching a loved one pass away is extremely difficult and emotional. How do we even calculate time? We tend to get whisked away into our busy lives and forget what it is like to spend time with our loved ones. Then for some reason, we ask for more time when we know it’s too late.

It is something that I’ve often questioned about elders, all they want to do is pass down their knowledge and experiences before they leave us. Why do they feel the need to do this at the end of their life? Do we only start listening when they are about to pass because we did not think of paying attention to the stories before?

“They want to give you advice, the stuff that you never wanted to listen to, they were probably right about. They want to keep this connection possible and if they never had a chance to do that, whether they were working too hard or your relationship was on the rocks or something like that, I think that they want the time and the space to be able to try and fix that before they die.” – Judith Helfand 

That is the most wonderful thing about Love & Stuff it takes these conversations about death and turns them into life lessons, so others can understand how to approach the end of their loved ones life. It is a cathartic piece, not only for Helfand but for everyone that worked on the film. It presented a safe space for everyone who had lost someone. “I mean it just started out as a way, for me to not be alone with what I knew. What could be a very private universal moment and by private I mean, I’m not letting others into our life, and into this moment, and into our space, into our home and into our hospice, but I did the opposite.” Helfand wanted everyone to be present for her mother’s passing, in order to give them time to say goodbye.

Helfand’s mother, like every mother, wanted what was best for her daughter and it was revealed that Judith could not bear any children of her own. So the connectivity to motherhood, was the strongest part of this feature because at a time where Judith needed her mother, to guide her through the adoption process and in raising her daughter, she had passed away. “The thing that my mother wanted the most at the end of her life, was the thing my daughter wanted at the beginning of hers and that’s time. My mother just wanted time and my kid just wants to play, she just wants time.” Helfand believes that her daughters birth, was a gift from her mother after she passed and that full circle connectivity is the heart of Love & Stuff. 

This film helps viewers re-evaluate their own connection with their parents or loved ones. Helfand had 2 and a half years to prepare for her mother’s death and it was important to her, to find away to utilize that time. “I wanted to figure out how to keep her in my life and keep our conversation dynamic, even if it wasn’t current and present. It could be ongoing and I wanted to figure out how to be a mother, without having a mother and I felt like all that material was locked inside an archive, and I needed to get to it, as soon as I could.” This feature is incredibly emotional because of the raw, human connection the viewer has with Helfand, as she goes on this journey with her mother.

Helfand made a follow up video to Love & Stuff, called Absolutely No Spitting and it shows the journey of her, now 4 year – old daughter Theo taking a DNA test to discover her ancestry. What starts out as a factual journey, turns into a path of self discovery and acceptance for young Theo. The love shared between Helfand and Theo is very quirky and heartfelt. Helfand shared her own ancestry with Theo and she will continue to explore value in the people around her. She identifies her daughter’s Blackness and incorporates that into her Jewish ancestry.

 

 

HOT DOCS 2020: LOVE & STUFF


By: Amanda Guarragi 

“The only good thing about time running out, is that it pushes people to find the strength to show up.” 

Love & Stuff is a deeply personal documentary on motherhood and the cycle of life. Peabody Award winning filmmaker Judith Helfand, documented her terminally ill mother’s final moments, at home-hospice before she passed. The camera, helped Helfand stay connected to her mother during hard times and it was used as another form of communication. In this feature, Helfand continues the story that she began two decades ago, with Healthy Baby Girl (Sundance, Peabody 1997) through these films, Helfand adds emotional layers, by openly discussing her own traumas, addressing grief by using dark humour and reflecting on the power of family.

This feature is incredibly emotional because of the raw, human connection the viewer has with Helfand, as she goes on this journey with her mother. Helfand has normal, everyday conversations with her and integrates old home footage to show the drastic change in her mother. Her mother, like every mother, wanted what was best for her daughter and it was revealed that Judith could not bear any children of her own. So the connectivity to motherhood, was the strongest part of this feature because at a time where Judith needed her mother, to guide her through the adoption process and in raising her daughter, she had passed away.

“How do you live without your mother?” it’s a question – through our own paranoia of the endless possibilities that could happen to our mother’s – that we ask ourselves daily. How can any part of my life be possible without the woman that gave me life? How can I grow as an adult without her guiding me? It doesn’t matter what age you are, life is always hard to navigate and everyone confides in their mother or motherly figure. In Judith’s case, her baby girl Theo, was born right after her mother passed and many said it was a gift from her. How does one learn about motherhood, if they’ve never been a mother before? No one is ever prepared to look after a child and to have an entire being, be so dependent on you, it is definitely a challenge in itself.

As Judith’s mother was getting to her final months, she had become her baby to practice on, before she was able to complete the adoption. It was a humorous moment, but no one fully understands how heartbreaking it is to watch a person, who you have known your whole life to be physically strong, to lose that very part of themselves until they are in that situation themselves. I have gone through those stages with my grandparents, I have looked after them and I have struggled with understanding the aging process. How? How can we go from such strong, independent beings, to being children again? This is why my heart is always with the senior community, they have lived such full lives and then to see them in such a fragile state is hard.

I also find it quite interesting that seniors are always more open and candid discussing death, almost as if they start preparing us past a certain age. They make plenty of jokes centering around death, once they hit the age of seventy five and in a way, it’s good that they do that. What parents do their whole lives, is try to set up their children for a strong, healthy life and we don’t realize that is what they’re doing, until we have achieved our goals.

The one thing that really stood out to me in this feature, is that Judith went through all of her mother’s belongings with her and then kept everything in boxes after her passing. The emotional attachment to objects is very hard to break because of all the memories that are tied to them. I thought the individual shots of the objects Judith decided to highlight, were very important because whether it was a piano or a tube of lipstick, it reminded Judith of her mother. Instead of a memory locked in your mind, there is a physical, concrete object that you can hold in your hands, which will still have traces of your loved one.

Love & Stuff is a beautiful documentary about life and death. It shows the value of family and the power of motherhood. It handles grief with such tenderness and shows a side of seniors, that many do not see before their passing. Somehow, it is more difficult to grieve your loved one, while they are alive because you know you have to let them go eventually. It is important to remember that even if your mother is no longer with you, she taught you everything you needed to know to survive this life and as time goes on, you will incorporate what she taught you and add your own anecdotes.

 

 

Tribeca & Hot Docs 2020 Documentary Special Presentation: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles Review


BY: Amanda Guarragi

The recipe is not that good, if it doesn’t include a story.” 

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is a documentation of how food is a very important part of history and how that fusion can be modernized. Food and Art History intersect at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Laura Gabbert’s documentary. In 2018, the MET decided to open their “Visitors to Versailles” exhibit to the public, with a culinary event inspired by Louis XIV’s elaborate lifestyle. Yotam Ottolenghi accepted the challenge and selected five of the world’s most innovative, visionary pastry chefs through social media, to whip up desserts worthy of Marie Antoniette herself.

Ottolenghi wanted to preserve history through the pastry dishes, while modernizing the delicacies from that century for the “Visitors of Versailles” exhibit. He handpicked five pastry chefs that used architecture and history to create unique pastries through instagram. The integration of social media was beneficial because it has become a portfolio for so many people in the arts and it’s such a useful tool to get your name/brand out there. Dinara Kasko of Ukraine designs 3D printed moulds, while Singapore’s Janice Wong confects with chocolate. London conceptual artists Sam Bompas and Harry Parr sculpt wobbly gelatin. Ghaya Oliveira of Michelin-starred Daniel in New York City and “cronut” creator Dominique Ansel reinvent French pastries.

Laura Gabbert wanted to showcase the beauty and the dark history of Versailles during the run of Louis XIV. She did this by having Ottolenghi take the audience on his research journey, by speaking to history experts on Versailles and Marie Antoniette’s downfall. There was such a passion and appreciation for that period of history by the experts and by Ottolenghi, that it made it so much more engaging to watch. The passion for creating dishes and the importance of historical figures were brought together to present a story. Ottolenghi values history and the way food has grown with each culture all over the world.

The history and culture of the world is definitely embedded in food and dishes that chefs have created. We all associate certain dishes to countries and that adds the historical depth to its people. This feature does an incredible job in showcasing the beauty of Versailles, how the French pastries were originally created and where they were redistributed in Europe. It’s so fascinating to see where delicacies originated from and how much they have evolved in the modern era. One line that stood out to me, was that food was used as a ceremony in that century. Now instead of people inviting others into their homes to see their meals, they have posted their process on the internet for others to see. Food brings everyone together and the more we study the art of cooking and baking, there are endless possibilities in how to improve upon these dishes.

I also loved the way this feature was filmed. They really captured the beautiful colour tones and textures of everything in the frame, especially the beauty of Versailles and the dishes. Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles takes the viewer on a stunning journey of art history and french delicacies in a very extravagant way. They show every single detail and the importance of being an artist. There is no history without art and art can take many forms, including food dishes. It’s important to know and understand that preparing dishes on such a large scale, takes an artistic eye, but also an architectural one and it allows audiences to gain a new appreciation for art as an important medium.