By Gary M. Kramer.
América, directed by Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, is a lovely, poignant meditation on eldercare. The filmmakers capture the rhythm of the life of Diego, a young man living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, who is called back to Colima to care for his grandmother, América, who has advanced dementia. América is living with Diego’s brother Rodrigo, and they are eventually joined by their other brother, Bruno. Meanwhile, their father, Luis, is in prison, being held for elder abuse after América, who was left alone, had fallen out of bed and was screaming for help.
Stoll and Whiteside’s affectionate documentary does not focus on the difficulties of the caregiving – though certain tasks are featured in this film. Instead, they present the relationship between the brothers and their grandmother, and the joy that this family shares. The filmmakers met during the Maryland Film Festival to discuss their heartfelt and sensitive film. América recently screened at the AFI DOCS festival will next play at BAM on June 27.
You dedicated your film a tu madres, to your mothers. What are your families like?
Chase Whiteside (CW): Big question! You take this first.
Erick Stoll (ES): OK. I’ll describe their contours. Like many families today, we were split all over the place – my parents divorced when I was young…. It was a typical, alienated American family.
CW: Mine is an aggressively alienated American family. Also divorced when I was young, but that seems hardly remarkable these days. I grew up in a rural area with my stepfather and mother, mostly. I had a lot of siblings, but I guess the remarkable things, as it relates to the film, and why I was open to the idea of dedicating it to my mother, is that my own mother has been very sick – she has Huntington’s disease. When we first went down to Puerto Vallarta to start this project, my family was, via email, having this big debate about her going into an assisted living facility, which I was opposed to. But unlike Diego, I totally unwilling to stop everything in my life to go and live with her. It was something I thought about all the time while I was making the movie.
You create a rhythm of Diego’s life, which is playful in Puerto Vallarta in the extended early sequences. But then you shift to show him being a more responsible person in Colima. Can you talk about how you wanted to present him and the relationship he has with his brothers, which is as caring loving but also contentious?
CW: We got lucky on some level. We thought it was important to [initially] give Diego a zero state – he was free, and of low responsibility, because he was young, and all of that had to be interrupted, but it was interrupted with new purpose. All of the brothers were different enough that it was easy to create them as new characters. Rodrigo, the older brother, is just physically larger, and had a different disposition when it came to work. Bruno came late to the film and that gave us time to flesh out the contrast between Diego and Rodrigo before we had to get around to filming Bruno.
ES: I was frustrated by the dramatic simplification of the dynamics, relationships, and motivations, so I had a real worry that we were flattening out the complexity of the differences of people’s perspectives, and people’s desires.
CW: The giveaway is that there’s a picture of all three brothers we show a couple of times…. You’ve seen two. The main difference is that you see Diego’s intimacy with América. He lays with her and talks with her easily. He’s open. On the contrary, Bruno wants to do good work and make América better, but he has less patience.
ES: He has a lower level of fluency with her. Rodrigo, on the other hand, is more skeptical of the whole project. It should be said, what they were doing would be impossible without Rodrigo providing a home and income, and he cared for her. He took an active part in caring for her. But it was not easy or natural to speak her language or go at her pace. He was less open to the idea that that was a valuable thing to learn.
How did your allegiances among the brothers shift as the story unfolded?
CW: I think the question is most pertinent for Diego, which is to say that it’s very difficult to trust and love your subject and balance showing all the good things about them, and when do you bring in and show ways in which your characters may be – in your view – not making the best choice. Our film doesn’t get into that complexity.
ES: It’s not in our film, but Diego had this almost constant running philosophical vision of what they were doing and why they were going through it: That América had chosen to fall out of the bed to bring the family together, to heal the wounds of the past – he’s really interested in tarot and the family tree – so there are times where we thought, as his friends, as observers, that he was acting a little unreasonable, or unfair in his expectations of those around him, but it was constantly framed in this really beautiful vision that also moved us. So, the film kind of navigates between those spaces.
CW: There are really two critical scenes. There’s a scene where Diego speaks with Rodrigo on the couch about the limits of [América’s] consciousness. I think the audience kind of sides with Diego. Of course, she has her own reality and consciousness; we’ve seen her in this really sweet scene. But then, at the end of the film, Diego and Rodrigo have another conversation in the kitchen, where Diego goes on this monologue, where he’s profusely saying, “We can be pirates! We can be nomads! We can live together!” And Rodrigo is saying, “We can do those things separately, too,” and those two scenes play together in a way. In the beginning, Diego convinces Rodrigo and us of the philosophical grandness and worthwhileness of this project, and you kind of see the limits and maybe even his naiveté in that second scene. That’s a hard thing as a filmmaker who loves their subject, and cares about him and wants to support his mission, but we need to represent.
What observations do you have about how you presented América?
CW: With long slow shots, there’s an opportunity for her to reveal her essential character. I do think some of that has to do with América. Dementia looks differently in different people, and sometimes that can be very dark and troubling. And by grace or luck, her dementia, was not that. She was mostly pleasant to be around. It would have been a totally different tone of a film if she had a different kind of terminal illness, or if her dementia had a different personality aspect to it. Those characters would be no less human, also. It’s easy for our film to say people can be so beautiful with advanced dementia, because América was. Sometimes advanced dementia can be really terrible.
ES: When people make a choice to care for a parent, or a disabled relative, it is an interruption in life. You have your ambitions and your life is interrupted when you are called to this task. What is so inspiring about Diego – and Bruno – is that they are going through pain and challenges to do this. But Diego would say, rather exasperated, because he said the same thing to his family a million times, “This is what I want to do.” So how can we enable more people to be able to make that choice, with sacrificing their career, or the financial impossibility, and the additional stress. How can more people be empowered to take time off to care for my elderly parents, or grandparents, or whomever?
CW: Diego may not have considered it to be an interruption in his life, but an enrichment of his life. But at the same time, I think it was keeping him from starting a career and making money, or starting intimate relationships. He didn’t view it that way. Which is an amazing thing. I don’t think he could have done it alone. He had to share the duty. Bruno did a lot.
What decisions did you make about what to show regarding América and her grandsons’ care? Some docs are really explicit, but I like that in your film, there are no shock moments, no graphic scenes to convey a point. Can you talk about that?
ES: We didn’t set out to make a film about the challenges and mechanics of caregiving in a way that certain documentaries, like the film Care (directed by Deirdre Fishel, 2016), does. The emotional element of caregiving was what was most important. We tried to walk the line of showing enough to convey the emotional meaning and the challenges and realities of it, but it’s not a film about América’s body and what they had to do to her body.
CW: I would say also the body is still part of it. They actually have to do these things, but we had a different challenge that América, given her dementia, had no capacity to consent to a long, big documentary process. Consent was an ever-renewing thing we would get from her every time we filmed. It was important for us to set our own limits on what we’d show of her in her most vulnerable moments – whether it was a shower, or her using the restroom – it was about her dignity, because she couldn’t consent.
There is a line someone has in the film, “She lives in her reality,” which I really like. You introduce us to that reality and what she knows and understands and believes. What is your sense of her reality?
ES: I think Diego puts it best when he says, “In her reality, whatever is going on, she trusts that there is someone there who is taking care of her.” She trusts that she isn’t abandoned. Something that isn’t quite in the film is that sometimes when she would be left alone, she would forget how long she’d been alone, and she wouldn’t know where she was, or what was going on. So, I think in her private moments, it was easy for her to be afraid. She didn’t have a sense of time. Did someone just leave? Are they coming back? But there was this constant, ultimate trust that there was someone. That she wouldn’t be abandoned. That there is always going to be someone here.
CW: In her reality, around them, it was love. There was this magic presence in the film – in the meditation series, Rodrigo was having, or Diego talking about the profoundness of the project. We worked with Diego about putting his magic sensibility into the film. We use magic to describe things that don’t make sense and are understood. Diego inspired me, and perhaps us, to believe in this magic about América and their love and the situation that they have. The magic is this indescribable, unspeakable, undefinable connection you seen specifically between, mostly between Diego and América, that someone with advanced dementia can so easily and casually have this language between them that seems totally unlikely. That’s magic and that’s love.
It’s a very affectionate portrait of a family and everyone brings their experiences to the movie. How did you create meaning in the film?
CW: The love Diego insists it exists. Rodrigo is skeptical of it. The film believes it also. The meaning of the film is framed by Diego.
ES: In many family documentary portraits, they frequently rely on a kind of syrupy sentimentality to convey love or closeness and intimacy….
CW: Oftentimes constructed with music….
ES: What I’m proud of, and what strikes people about our film, is that there is so much observable, perceivable love and closeness and affection without an aesthetic of sentimentality. It’s true of the form, but also their reality.
I like the champagne mangos, and the image of brothers standing on each other’s shoulders that shows you the connection of the brothers. Can you talk about those devices used in the film? They are revealing and freighted with meaning.
CW: A lot of that came out of the editing process. We wanted to show visually their optimism for the team they were building together to take on the project of caretaking for América. The mangoes, of course, are on the tree and healthy at the beginning of the film, but they start to disintegrate…it’s a visual motif. The brother stacking on each other shoulders, Diego is relying on his brother to do it. We wanted to give the film its own symbolic language.
Can you talk about your visual approach? You shoot in intimate close up but also have landscape moments. The way you frame the characters lying close together.
ES: People lying next to each other points to our visual language, watching two people together in a frame interact, how their gestures coincide, what they are visually communicating as much as what they are saying. A lot of vérité documentaries cuts back and forth between people’s faces and close-ups. It was appealing for us to watch how two people, family members, especially, who are so expressive with their bodies, how are they speaking through their bodies in the same frame?
CW: Erick has this kind of signature shot – it’s medium wide, with two people’s upper bodies entirely in the frame. You see it throughout the movie constantly. You see people interacting in the same frame, without having to cut between them. The fight is an example of this. When I watch vérité in particular, you rarely see people in the same frame, so the kinetic energy of the scene is set by the editing, or by music as opposed to set by the tempo of people in real life.
ES: Maintaining the space and continuity of space also is something. Moving between shots, the space makes sense, and you feel grounded as a viewer in these spaces. With handheld camera or cutting, you don’t have a sense of space or time. Some of this filming was me just living with them. There were these slow, lazy afternoons. You’re just sitting. This time and space is in the film. You had to be patient with América to take her somewhere or have a conversation. That practically informed how to shoot scenes. We tried to set that pace very early.
I like that you didn’t concentrate too much on Luis who is in jail, or his situation. Can you discuss how you portrayed his part in the story?
CW: [Luis’s situation] is this opaque, hard to understand, out of view thing. That is what it’s like. The film doesn’t make it clear, and it doesn’t all make sense. We don’t pass judgment on the process. That’s what it was like.
ES: We experienced it through the [sons]. There’s a banality to the system. You don’t know what’s going on or how long it would take.
What did you learn/what do you want viewers to get out of the film’s message about quality of life?
CW: You can see that even people in their most advanced age and dementia have the capacity for joy, for intimacy, and for love. I don’t think the film suggests that getting to those things is always easy. If anything, you can see how very hard it is, how much work it takes, how much organization, and how stressful it can be.
ES: This is a little bit outside the frames of our film, but we are just in this moment where so many people are defined as problem populations to be managed. So I think that conversation between Rodrigo and Diego is about personhood and one’s right to exist. To an extent, Rodrigo is making a judgment of her personhood on her self-sufficiency – can she get up, or care for herself? – and what Diego puts forth is vision of a generous, universal personhood, a value of life. There is a reward. The whole time I was thinking was, maybe I would care for my mom!
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.