When beautiful people come into our lives you never want them to leave. They make you feel complete and they become your oxygen. You can never see your life without them and that bond goes far beyond the physical world. I am referring to your life partner, spouse and soulmate. For the romantics in the world, your partner’s health is as important as your own. One day you’re preparing for a trip around the world together and the next, your partner is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Why you, why her, why is life so unfair? We search for answers as we support our loved one but those answers only reveal an inevitable demise and a future without them.
I believe one of the biggest compliments you can give to someone is to immortalize them in film. You capture the nuances, the charisma, the charm, the heart of that beautiful person that completed your world. You tell the story of how it began and how you arrived at this crossroad in your lives. You show the world that this person mattered, they were full of life, they contributed to a better world and touched those around them through their laughter, their words, their emotion and their love. Dear Audrey is a film that says all of that.
Jeremiah Hayes pays tribute to his friend and mentor, Martin Duckworth (activist filmmaker) by capturing 4 years of Audrey Schirmer (Martin’s wife) and their daughter Jacqueline as they come to terms with Alzheimer’s together and chart a path to an ever changing tomorrow. Hayes is best known for co-directing Reel Injun and the editor of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Hayes has made editing his bread and butter with 41 projects but he also enjoys the writing side with 12 films/episodes. This film is a postcard to families impacted by this debilitating disease and couples that endure the struggle together, bound by unconditional love and sacrifice for each other.
Martin Duckworth has immersed himself into the documentary world for a large part of his life, having been the cinematographer on 82 films and director of 19. It’s fair to say that Duckworth is more accustomed to being on the other side of the camera, so when Hayes approached him with the idea, he didn’t immediately say yes. However, after he did, the journey began and the many layers that bind us together and make us human begin to reveal themselves. The film is personal, it’s honest and can act as a guide when faced with similar circumstances. Alzheimer’s will try to steal your identity but through photos, 8 mm film and archives, we see the vibrant Audrey Schirmer at her best and in her wheelhouse as an avid photographer that always had her finger on the pulse of humanity and social issues.
Martin and Audrey made their home in Montreal and I caught up with Jeremiah, who also calls Montreal home. The film opened at DOXA on May 5th and is winning over hearts. The festival runs through to May 15th before moving onto other festivals, so please watch this film and support a great message. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “Whose idea was it to make this documentary, yours or Martin’s (Duckworth)?”
JEREMIAH “It was my idea. I asked him in 2016 and initially he said no because he felt that he didn’t have anything pertinent to say. Then I asked him if I could film him and Audrey together as he played the piano for her, to help her sleep. He agreed to that and it went very nicely. In fact, he never said no again and I kept going over for the next 4 years – sometimes once or twice per month. We got along very well as friends and every time I went over there, I’d try to be as inconspicuous as possible. I’d be alone with my camera filming and keeping it intimate. Without a crew, it felt like one guy sitting in the corner filming a home movie. That was the feeling that I wanted to portray as I filmed him, Audrey and his family (Jacqueline).”
HNMAG “I got the impression that they were very comfortable with you there. How well did you know Martin and the family before the project?”
JEREMIAH “I had met Martin back in ‘91’ and one of my first jobs out of film school was working with the film board on his documentary – Peace Keeper At War and I was the assistant editor on that film; it was when I met Martin. Although we kept in touch since then we really didn’t become friends until I started filming in 2016.”
HNMAG “What type of camera did you use to capture all the footage?”
JEREMIAH “I used a Sony A7S because it’s very sensitive to low light. By gaining the access and maintaining my semi-invisibility, I didn’t want to use lights. I knew his apartment was dark and I wanted to ease the simplicity of being able to film in low light and that camera was sensational, it’s one of the best cameras on the market for low light shooting.”
HNMAG “How did you capture all the sound?”
JEREMIAH “On the camera, I attached a Sennheiser mic. which I really didn’t use that much. For 99% of the sound, I used a small Sennheiser lapel mic. that was zoomed over to a digital recorder for the audio. When I would show up, I would hit record and let it roll until I left. I would sync it up later but it became the system I used throughout the entire project.”
HNMAG “There was a lot of archived footage that you also used in the film. Where was the source of that?”
JEREMIAH “There were some home movies provided by Martin and VHS tapes that we found in his apartment. We also found some reels of Super 8 that he shot in the ‘60’s. I sent it to Quebec City to be transferred because it was the only place I could find that transferred Super 8. The majority of it came from many sources… from the NFB (National Film Board) to Getty archives. I’d scoured the web with an archivist, Thea Toole. We also got a lot of film footage from the NFB that Martin had shot and directed. We partnered with them because Martin had made so many films with them and they gave us such a great deal because they were one of the producers.”
HNMAG “There must’ve been an insurmountable stack of footage to sort through. Did you have help with that?”
JEREMIAH “No, little by little I did it myself. I’m an editor by trade. Everything is available online these days and I would go to reputable places like Getty and download what’s referred to as a ‘comp’. It’s temporary footage that you can use for offline editing and it helps to organize and label everything, so you can trace it down to the master footage later. You don’t want to end up with footage where you don’t know where it comes from. Another cool thing that we did with some photos Martin and Audrey had taken, Audrey was an amazing photographer… Martin had purchased a negative scanner and we scanned thousands of her photos. In the film, they’re photos that nobody has seen because she’s never printed them. We found some really gorgeous photos after a painstaking search through them all to locate the real gems. Once we did, I would scan them again at a higher resolution and touch them up. Even as a negative, there’ll be dust and scratches on them.”
HNMAG “Did you have a discussion with Martin, in reference to camera boundaries?”
JEREMIAH “Every time I’d shoot and edit something, Martin would be the first person I’d show it to. I did worry that there might be something embarrassing to the family or I got the facts wrong. When you’re editing and splicing, you can get it wrong but there’s nothing that comes to mind that he thought was wrong, he quite liked most everything I did which helped with the process. Jacqueline (daughter) was great and I wanted the film to be about all three of them. There was a crisis in the film where Jacqueline cut herself off from Audrey to protect herself from the grief of losing her mom. It was an important moment and they had to find a way to resolve it. Luckily, Jacqueline had a great councillor at her group home that helped her realize that her mom needed her as much as she needed her mom and once she realized that, she was able to overcome that. Jacqueline’s point of view is very charming throughout the film and we get to see things through her eyes. She has a different perspective on Martin and Audrey’s life and the situation. When you have a third person looking at the situation, it makes it much deeper and complex, rather than just Audrey and Martin.”
HNMAG “There is a scene in the film where Audrey seems to disappear and Jacqueline grows very panicked. She is eventually found a short time later. Has there ever been a moment where you wanted to intervene?”
JEREMIAH “There was that situation and another one at a park at night where Audrey starts walking off on her own and Martin follows her. I always balanced that out, whether I should shoot or help out but it never seemed to get to that point, where Martin and Jacqueline couldn’t handle it. There were moments that were cut out of the footage where I was making suggestions of where she could’ve gone, ‘maybe we should check the car?’ I cut myself out for drama purposes and it was my intent throughout the filming to not be a presence in the story and remain as invisible as possible. You don’t want to break the third wall where you’re aware of the cameraman or crew.”
HNMAG “After Audrey passed, there was no footage of her funeral. Was that left out intentionally?”
JEREMIAH “When Martin told me the story of how he puts Audrey to bed, at the home for Alzheimer’s, knowing he wasn’t allowed to sleep there. He placed a cot beside her bed and would lower hers, so they would be at the same level. I thought that was a very lovely tender moment and a quaint way to end the story, seeing them laying there and holding hands. There’s an animation shortly after that indicating her passing.”
HNMAG “I think the animation was beautifully incorporated in expanding on the narrative of the film. Was there a reason you only used black and white?”
JEREMIAH “I wanted the animation to feel very raw, like a hand drawn charcoal picture but with a sense of realism. We had used a lot of photos and archives in the film already, so I wanted to add something that was very trippy, imaginative and wild. It adds another mood and texture from the rest of the film. We found an amazing animator, Joshua Sherrett – he’s very talented and I actually made an online video of how he did it. His process was quite amazing because he shot actors and then we would cut them and put them in a 3 D world. Once that was all approved, we gave it to a 2 D artist to draw frame by frame. That process allowed us to save time and money, as well as making it easier for any changes to a 3 D world.”
HNMAG “Were you editing as you were gathering footage?”
JEREMIAH “No, I filmed for 4 years and then edited ½ of the film to use as a promo. Once the promo was edited, I could go look for money to finish it. I didn’t want to ask for the money upfront or during the process, because I knew I’d have more creative control. If you do most of the work upfront and then flip the bill for it, it’s much harder for people to tell you how to edit and change things. Throughout the next phase of the editing process, I worked with the composer. He would send me music and I would send him cuts – we’d go back and forth. I’d be editing while working with these two great collaborators, Walker Grimshaw (composer) and Joshua Sherrett (animator). This went on for a year. With the music, usually a composer will create a soundtrack for the entire project at the end, but we did that throughout the editing process. It became more organic as we bounced ideas off each other and became more of a flow throughout.”
HNMAG “How is Martin and his daughter Jacqueline doing? Have you seen them lately?”
JEREMIAH “I see him regularly, the film had shown recently at the Les Rendez-vous Québec Cinéma and he was there along with a good crowd. I’m actually going to see him this coming weekend to help him with another film. He’s still active and doing well. Jacqueline still comes down once a month and she has a new boyfriend at her group home. They’re the first couple in the group home to live together.”
HNMAG “Do you have a distributor lined up?”
JEREMIAH “The film is co-produced by the NFB and Cineflix Media with NFB being the Canadian distributor and Cineflix being the international. I believe they’re looking at future deals with streaming companies – Netflix or others. Currently, we’re focusing on festivals and it will be in DOXA next. After that, it will be coming to the Fort Myers Beach Festival, the Long Island Festival, Richmond Virginia and others in both Canada and the US. It’s supposed to come to theatres in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto in June.”
A very personal diary caught on film with so many amazing lessons, stories, emotions with pain and celebration intertwined. We can all learn something from this film as an audience, a partner to another going through Alzheimer’s and as a humanitarian learning about the long goodbye.