Oscar nominee Irene Taylor Brodsky’s unflinching documentary profiles a unique camp, where grieving children find comfort in one another to deal with their pain. One Last Hug (… and a few smooches): Three Days at Grief Camp screens in the shorts program NYWIFT: Women Calling the Shots at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival.
Please describe your film in your own words.
Irene Taylor Brodsky: One Last Hug… tells the story of young children struggling with the death of a parent, brother or sister. The film takes place over three days at a so-called “grief camp” for kids in the Los Angeles area. Our youngest character is only 7 years old, and she struggles to understand that death is permanent… that her mother is truly gone and won’t be back. Other kids have witnessed long-term illness or been confounded by a violent death or suicide. Some of these kids are very expressive; others are confused and reticent. There’s a certain magical realism they experience enduring this kind of suffering, and yet there’s also a remarkable fortitude and clarity.
What inspired you to tell this particular story?
ITB: I was approached to take on this film, and we all knew the content would be difficult.
I did not lose one of my parents or a sibling while growing up, but the more I looked around me, I realized just how many people close to me had, including my husband and my father. When I talked to these people about the film I was making, I was taken aback by their intensely emotional reactions. None of them ever went to a camp like Camp Erin; many of them never even talked about death with their families until they became adults. Even though decades had passed, the pain lingered on. It was humbling.
Several weeks before Camp Erin started, I visited the camp and met some of the grief counselors. Right away I knew the film would be a powerful testament—not only for children grieving now, but for all the adults out there who lost parents and siblings years ago, but weren’t given the chance to truly grieve.
Camp Erin not only offered a narrative structure for our stories, it added something the film would really need—a dose of playfulness. Art projects, scavenger hunts and swimming pools are something we all can remember from summer camp; this one just happens to focus on talking about death.
Did you have a personal connection to Camp Erin?
ITB: I didn’t, personally. One of the producers, Greg DeHart, lost his father as a young boy. That experience drove him towards Camp Erin, and gave us the kind of access that would have been impossible for most filmmakers. You could say that pre-production for this film started years, if not decades, before we began shooting.
There are 41 Camp Erins around the country and Greg had been working closely with one of them run by a grief support center in Los Angeles called Our House. They developed a trusted relationship, without which I could have never accessed the camp, much less gained the trust of the children and their families, nor would I have had the honor of learning their very personal stories.
What was the toughest part of making your film, considering the heavy material and often vulnerable children?
ITB: These kids had already been through so much pain and confusion, and I knew that my probing them could possibly bring on more. So we worked very closely with (surviving) parents and counselors to better understand the background of these kids’ stories. We also had a professional grief counselor present at each interview, which reassured me that if I took a child to an overly emotional place, the counselor would be there to help. All of us—even the children themselves—understood that these interviews would be tough. There were tears. But there was also laughter and catharsis.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
ITB: Too often we adults assume that children respond to death in sad, but relatively simple, ways. I hope this film shows that the reality is more complex than that. Children’s capacity for grief is profound, and—perhaps most of all—needs company. At a time when kids want to fit in with others, the crisis of death makes them feel so different. And alone. That’s why Camp Erin is so valuable to them.
Practically speaking, just knowing that Camp Erin locations exist around the country can hopefully reassure families that there is a place their kids can go to grieve with other kids, and even have fun in the process.
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
ITB: Sometimes film ideas you may know nothing about fall into your lap… and you should seize them. As filmmakers, we usually gravitate towards subjects and characters that are a reflection of our own experience. We film what we know. But the creative endeavors that start at ground zero—ideas and communities I know so little about in the first place—are the ones that end up being the most illuminating. I approach them more thoroughly and work a little bit harder, probably because I’m anxious about my own ignorance. So my advice is to break out from what you know. When you have a chance to dive into something new—or in a new way—take it.
What are you most looking forward to at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival?
ITB: I just had a baby, so “going to the movies” is a rare pleasure these days. Simply sitting in a dark theater, focused on the stories told by other filmmakers, is a luxury for me—as both movie-goer and artist. Fortunately, the HIFF lineup looks terrific!
One Last Hug (… and a few smooches): Three Days at Grief Camp screens in the shorts program NYWIFT: Women Calling the Shots at the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival. Tickets | Website
Irene Taylor Brodsky is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director whose documentaries have shown theatrically, at film festivals and on television worldwide. In 2011, she completed the Emmy-winning Saving Pelican 895 for HBO Documentary Films, following the life of a single bird rescued from the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. For her 2009 short-subject film The Final Inch, she was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award, three Emmys, and won the International Documentary Association’s Pare Lorentz Award for cinematic excellence. In 2007, Irene turned the camera on her own family to make her first feature-length documentary Hear and Now, which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and went on to receive numerous Audience and Jury awards around the world, a 2008 Peabody Award, and a nomination for Documentary of the Year by the Producer’s Guild of America. Irene’s passion for documentary portraiture began as a still photographer with her landmark book, Buddhas in Disguise, about disabled people living in the mountains of Nepal. She went on to make her first film for UNICEF in 1993, and since then has numerous award winning television documentaries for HBO, A&E, The History Channel and Fox. She founded Vermilion Films in 2005 and lives in Portland, Oregon.