Share the Light: Laura Checkoway on “Edith+Eddie”

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With the 93rd Academy Awards airing tonight on ABC, I am pleased to present my 2018 interview with filmmaker Laura Checkoway about her brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary short subject, “Edith+Eddie.”

Only once you’ve seen an ailing or elderly loved one fed into the uncaring prison of institutional living can you begin to truly appreciate what Laura Checkoway has achieved with her masterful half-hour Kartemquin documentary, “Edith+Eddie.” At first, the film appears to be little more than an endearing profile of the titular interracial couple who got married in their mid-90s. We see them inserting their dentures and exercising their limbs, while recalling how they met each other while playing the lottery in Virginia. But then we learn that Edith’s daughter plans to sell the house where her mother has lived all her life and hopes to spend her remaining time on this earth. Checkoway’s film is a devastating account of the obstacles that are put in place to prevent people from living their final days on their own terms with the people they love.

Prior to this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, where Checkoway was nominated alongside her executive producer and mentor at Kartemquin, Steve James (scoring his first Best Documentary Feature nomination for “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”), I spoke with the pair about their collaboration. “There is something about a situation or a person that just compels you to them,” James told me. “You don’t know where it’s going. You just know that they are interesting people in an interesting situation. The fact that Eddie and Edith were in Virginia—I grew up in Virginia—at their age getting married is highly unusual in any respect, but even more so in Virginia, considering that they are crossing lines of race. But the documentary gods, if you will, dictate what your story is going to be.”

A few months later, I had the pleasure of meeting with Laura for a more in-depth conversation about the evolution of her Oscar-nominated film, her debut feature, the interest of Cher in Edith and Eddie’s story and the challenge of navigating the truth amidst conflicting family testimonies.

How did you approach interviewing celebrities as a journalist, crafting psychological profiles more in line with Studs Terkel’s oral histories than the typical project-focused press junket?

I keep a copy of Studs’ book, Working, on my desk just to have it there, along with a number of other books. I remember opening that book up as a kid, and I had never read something like that before. I didn’t know about the concept of oral history at the time. I actually haven’t thought about just how much his work spoke to me. As a journalist in college, I studied poetry and sociology. There wasn’t a journalism program, so I wasn’t formally trained in it. My writing style is very conversational, allowing the interviewees to be who they are as I get to know them. I would receive unprecedented access to people who typically have many handlers around them and often are quite scripted in what they say. These people are media trained, but they would just open up to me. Something that was scheduled to be 15 minutes with five people monitoring every word would end up being much longer, culminating with the interviewee saying, “Let’s spend the weekend together! She’s coming home with me.” [laughs] People would often say that they forgot that they were being interviewed, or they felt that they were talking to their therapist.

It all came naturally to me because I’m really interested in people and what makes us who we are. I love learning about people’s childhoods. I probably wasn’t asking the typical questions about their work or celebrity gossip and by having that approach, people would spill their guts to me. That wound up being really great training for documentary filmmaking. I had always gotten assignments as a writer, so I hadn’t come up with my own ideas or pitched before. When I started my first film, “Lucky,” it was the first story I went after on my own, and I think that’s why I went so far in. It started as a written story I did, and then became a film. It was rich with layers that provoked so many questions, it felt like it came to me from a greater place. I was able to go in as far as I wanted, and that journey wound up being six years long.

What attracted you to the story of Lucky from a visual standpoint? Her tattoos serve as armor as well as a mask she often desires to remove, signifying the permanence of the choices we make in life.

It gives me goosebumps when you say that. Her tattoos are an armor and a mask, and at the same time, they are a cry for attention. Those things seem to be in such contrast with each other, but are actually intertwined. You can see why the experience of making “Lucky” turned me into a filmmaker. Whoever’s story I’m helping to share, I feel like I want to be doing it in the best possible medium. I had originally written about Lucky’s story as a magazine piece and photo essay, but I knew that there was more to explore. I was helping write a rapper’s autobiography for Simon & Schuster at the time, and I met with a book editor at the company. As I told her about my magazine piece on Lucky, she said, “Oh, this is a book,” and I thought, “Yeah, that makes sense, because it’s something more long-form.” She offered me an opportunity to write that book, but when I sat down to write a few sample pages, I didn’t know what the perspective was. I didn’t know if it was first-person from Lucky or third-person from me, and it just didn’t work. It wasn’t at that moment when I realized it was a film, but I knew that she needed to speak for herself and that her presence and persona were something that, for me, the written page didn’t capture in all of its essence. So it became a film.

As someone who likes to share herself outwardly, was Lucky receptive to the project from the get-go?

She craves attention, so she loved having a camera on her. In her more powerful moments, she feels like a star, and on the streets of the Bronx or in the neighborhoods that she hangs in, she is a star. She walks around and everybody knows her. She’s such a dynamic person, and she was actually the one who invited me into her life to share her story. At the same time, as we know, the camera has its own presence and it plays different parts depending on what is going on. There was a certain point at which I felt like things opened up, and then the film became vérité in the shooting and really started to flow, though in the way that we edited it, it’s pretty consistent throughout. Some people might say she’s performative or she’s dramatic, and the thing is, that wasn’t the camera. That’s just Lucky.

You open “Lucky” with the quote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you,” and at the end of your short documentary, “Wolffland,” the film’s subject, artist Mia Wolff, says that her job is to “share light with people.” Do you feel that your job as a filmmaker is, in part, to “share the light” with audiences?

Oh, that’s beautiful! I think what makes me a filmmaker, or somebody who loves the visual medium, is that I see the beauty in all sorts of places. I look for that in people, and I look for that in myself. That theme you mentioned is an important one for me, but I don’t know how conscious it was. I was just at a fellowship residency program at the Carey Institute for Global Good where there’s a nonfiction program for journalists from around the world. We screened “Edith+Eddie” as well as “Lucky” about a week or two apart from each other, and a few of the fellows there noted, separately, that there is all this spiritual imagery and B-roll throughout the films. They asked me why I was drawn to that imagery, and though it was a conscious decision for me to include it, it wasn’t a theme that I had set out to have. It just was there in what I saw.

Lucky has a tattoo on her hand that says, “Child of God,” and she calls herself that. As an orphan who didn’t know her parents and was never adopted, she truly is a child of God. She also got “Fear God” tattooed on her eyelids, and her favorite rapper, Lil’ Wayne, has the same thing on his eyelids. [laughs] One thing Lucky told me that didn’t end up in the film was that when some people look at her, they think she worships the devil, or that she must be struggling with plenty of ghosts and demons. Lucky is very in tune with whatever that spiritual force is, so again, I think that just emerged because of who she is. The same thing occurred with “Edith+Eddie,” since the film is about people of faith.

Another key theme connecting “Lucky” and “Edith+Eddie” is the societal obstacles between family members that prevent them from seeing one another. We learn that Lucky was only allowed to see her daughter for a brief time during her NYC trip.

In both cases, the films were character portraits that were simply spawned from my interest in who these people were. I wanted to explore how Edith and Eddie fell in love at this time in their life and observe them as a couple. But then, as in “Lucky,” their lives became filled with these representations of the flaws and failures of the systems in our country. I was very aware with Lucky that part of my interest in her was that her life was so rich with social issues. When I met Edith and Eddie, I knew that elder dignity was a part of their story, but I didn’t know until later that they were caught in this broken system. So I was like, “Here we go again!” Just as I look to find the beauty in everything, I also aim to see the truth, whatever that may be. Part of the reason why I am searching for the light and trying to bring light to the world is because I also feel the weight of how much darkness there is. I do see that full spectrum.

And how much misinformation there is, at a time when the truth has become so much more difficult to decipher.

Yes. Following people’s lives who are going through experiences that are examples of what is happening not just nationally but globally is one of the most honest ways we can explore the issues of our time.

Your film provides a shattering account of how the elderly and ailing are treated in our country. This system favoring institutional living over at-home caregiving makes it practically impossible for people to live their final years on their own terms.

For me, it’s no surprise that an institution is an institution, and that doesn’t often equate freedom. I understood that, but I did not know anything about the legal guardianship system, and it is a nightmare. Even when you have a really loving family with lots of resources, it’s still tough to deal with an aging loved one. Then you throw in family dysfunction, systemic corruption, the justice system—which is not very just —and it’s a mess. All over the world, people have come up to me after seeing the film and tell me how they can personally relate to Edith and Eddie’s story, whether it be the plight of a loved one or the legal guardianship system itself. People are pouring out these stories, affirming that this is a universal subject that we are all grappling with, or maybe not grappling with to the extent that we should.

These are films that I have chosen to take on as passion projects. What sparks my interest are often the things that most people aren’t paying attention to often enough, and that adds to the urgency of giving them a platform. The reason that Steve James and I bonded when we first met is because I was making “Lucky.” It was towards the tail end of the shoot, and I was telling him about the project. He could relate to it because of his own film, “Stevie,” and he told me to go see the film. I was told time and time again, “She’s not ‘relatable,’ she’s not ‘likable,’ I don’t want to spend time watching this person.” Those reactions made it a steep climb as far as making the film, but at the same time I was like, “That is exactly why I want to pay attention to Lucky.” It was Steve who told me that there needs to be more films like this about difficult people.

What were the particular similarities between Stevie and Lucky? She didn’t commit a crime…

Not in the film. There were a lot of similarities, and though I am not a doctor, I would say many of their shared traits were psychological in nature. They both have a history of abuse and trauma. Steve James put himself in the film, whereas I am not onscreen in “Lucky,” but I could certainly relate to what Steve went through, navigating the blurry lines of relationships with the people that you are filming.

At what point did Edith and Eddie’s story come to the attention of Cher, who offered to pay for Edith’s medical expenses as well as fixing up the couple’s home?

There is a news clip towards the beginning of the film about the couple’s marriage being threatened. That was a local news story in the Virginia area, but it was simulcast. Cher was at her home in Malibu watching the news when she saw their story. I first learned of them after a friend texted me their photo that was circulating online after they had gotten married. My heart leapt out, and I immediately wanted to know more. Similarly, Cher was really touched by them, and reached out to the family asking how could she help. I was already involved in making the film at this time. Cher hired an attorney to join Edith’s daughter, Rebecca [Wright], in representing her mother’s wish to remain in her own home with Eddie. The first hurdle was to get the house taken off the market. Even though Cher had never met them before, she genuinely wanted to help. During the Flint water crisis, she sent tons of bottles of water to the city and did some philanthropic work there. She’s in a position to help with different issues that touch her.

Cher wasn’t looking for publicity or anything. It was something that she was quietly doing behind the scenes, but she really got involved in the case. On paper, there were many victories where we thought, “Oh my goodness, Cher is going to be able to save the day here.” But it was all a façade because the people who didn’t want Edith to come back home didn’t allow it. When she offered to renovate the house and provide home health care, she told me that they started making really exorbitant demands. Through this experience, Cher and I bonded on the phone and she was amazing. She couldn’t understand the crookedness of the legal guardianship system, and even though her attempts to help the couple were blocked, she was generous enough to offer her name as an executive producer for the film. It added a little star power. I feel that when you follow your heart or you just let go and see what’s going to unfold, sometimes magical things come your way.

The most wrenching scene in the film plays out over a black screen, as the couple is forcibly separated by Jessica, the legal guardian appointed by Edith’s daughter in Florida, Patricia Barber.

We had been filming throughout the day with Edith and Eddie at their home. They had a physical therapist there in the morning and they were exercising together. And then later Jessica and Patricia arrived with the police. They kicked us out of the house, so we were standing outside in a rain storm. Corwin Lamm, who was my collaborator and was running the sound in addition to serving as co-producer/editor on the film, said, “I’m still picking up Eddie. Eddie was still wearing his mic in bed. I couldn’t hear what was going on, but he had the headphones on and he kept saying, “Eddie is amazing. Oh my god. Eddie’s a hero!” That’s how we were able to capture that recording.

On the recording, you can also hear Edith saying, “This is my house. I’ve worked for this.”

Yes. Many people have said you could not have written the couples’ words in that moment more powerfully. We often wonder who we will be at a pivotal moment in our lives. You don’t know what you are capable of until you are called to stand up for something. Even though Eddie wasn’t able to physically do anything, he gave that fight his all. Every time people watch the film, his words are left ringing in their ears and stay with them for a long time.

What’s most troubling is how the legal guardianship system seems utterly uninterested in the desires of those it is seemingly protecting. Edith may have a degree of dementia, and she and Eddie may have lived longer in a nursing home, but is that really living?

It’s a violation of human rights. There was this wonderful screening at the USC School of Gerontology about a week before the Academy Awards, and it was accompanied by a panel of doctors, lawyers and various experts. It was such a rich conversation because of the level of insight that those people were able to offer. Kate Wilber, a leading professor of elder justice, talked about how there are legal guardians who have malicious intentions, and then there are others who want what is best for someone or often think they are operating in a way that is best for a loved one. She said something very eloquent about how, “If you must decide between freedom or safety, then you should always choose freedom.” She spoke about how if you think that you are protecting your parent or grandparent out of love, and even if you believe that they are better off being in a bed in a nursing home on medication, because at least they are safe, you must give them their freedom. Why shouldn’t you be able to fall in love at any age, even if you have dementia? Why can’t you make your own decisions? I feel like there is a box that people check off when someone has dementia, and it doesn’t take into account this vast range of what that condition means. Maybe you need help with certain things, but that doesn’t mean that your entire life needs to be put in the hands of someone else, especially if that person has ulterior motives or is a stranger appointed by a court who’s never even met you.

Kaiser Health News published an article a few days prior to the Academy Awards arguing that Patricia was a good caregiver who elongated Edith’s life, while portraying Edith’s other daughter, Rebecca, as negligent. How did you approach navigating the truth amidst conflicting family testimonies?

Patricia didn’t want to speak with us. During the time that we spent with Edith and Eddie, we made a film about them and the people who were in their lives. We filmed what we witnessed. I was making a love story, and it turned out to be a heartbreaking and illuminating one, with regards to elder rights and guardianship. There’s a twisted, tangled family backstory that goes way back long before we met Edith and Eddie. We met Edith and Eddie when they were in this bubble of love together. It was very clear that there was a lot of mess hovering around them, but we made a film about the people that invited us into their lives. There’s a much bigger story here with this entire system that is hurting families all over the country. It wasn’t just a can of worms. There was a can of snakes there, and I consciously chose not to make that part of the film.

The whole crux of your film is the injustice that these two people aren’t allowed to live together.

Yes! I am on the side of love, as are all of the people who helped me make this movie. We are with Edith and Eddie. Who we are and how we see the world informs what we create. I love Lucky, so I made a loving film with her. I love Edith and Eddie, so I made a loving film with them. I don’t know if that sounds cheesy, but…

No, because that is the essence of your work as a filmmaker as well as a journalist. By honing in on the humanity of your subjects, you elicit empathy from the viewer.

Right. Someone could come along and ask, “Well, why didn’t you talk to all of the case workers and all the judges and lawyers and people in foster care?” I wasn’t interested in that because Lucky is the authority on her own life. I want her to speak for herself. Yes, I know that there was tons of other stuff going on, but we get to choose what we focus on as filmmakers. As a journalist, because I wasn’t looking for people’s dirt, the people I spoke with would give me everything they had. I have my own barometer—so what most people would’ve used for their headline or their pull quote or what have you, that often wouldn’t make it into my story. My heart has that line and it’s usually clear to me.

If there’s anything you hope this film can do on a legislative level or a social level, what do you want the next step to be with this?

There’s a lot that’s already happening that’s incredibly powerful and our aim is to generate awareness and energy around elder rights, guardianship abuse, aging, end-of-life issues and legal reform. We want to make an impact both personally and politically. People from all over the world reach out often after seeing “Edith+Eddie,” saying it inspired them to talk with their families about the issues that arise in the film. That’s a great starting point. The American Bar Association on Law and Aging recently screened the film for their committee in addition to screenings at the New York City Elder Abuse Center. It has also been utilized by the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative in a two-day training for legal services lawyers who provide free legal assistance to low-income elders and victims of elder abuse. In October, the film will show at the World Congress on Adult Guardianship in Seoul, Korea with much more to come.

For more information on Laura Checkoway, visit her site, as well as the official site of “Edith+Eddie.”

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