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.