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New York City-based filmmaker Judith Helfand broke through as a filmmaker in 1997 with a highly personal documentary, A Healthy Baby Girl. This multilayered essay on maternity, medical negligence and guilt, among many other things, explored how her mother Florence’s use of a drug to prevent miscarriage led to Judith having first cervical cancer and then a radical hysterectomy in her twenties.
After several more films, such as similarly personal feature Blue Vinyl, the filmmaker twists the helix one more time with Love & Stuff, coming back once again to motherhood, bereavement, letting go and around half a dozen other topics in an emotionally fecund, funny and deeply resonant work. Honest and revealing, but not in an icky solipsistic way, the film (which world premiered at this year’s virtual edition of Hot Docs) finds Helfand coping with her mother’s death, becoming a parent herself to an adopted baby girl, addressing her health issues and confronting a few shipping containers’ worth of baggage, both metaphoric and actual.
Helfand is the antithesis of decluttering guru Marie Kondo. At one point in the film, Helfand is seen sorting through all the possessions left in her late mother’s apartment, unable to simply throw away Florence’s nail files, her toothbrush or even her partial denture. She knows it’s irrational. She knows there’s no reason to keep a dress her mom probably wore to a wedding or a bar mitzvah, and more importantly that her mother is literally not there in the dress. Likewise, she’s not in the many babkas friends bring round when she’s sitting shiva but which she can’t resist eating at night. But she can’t let any of it go.
On the other hand, that zeal for keeping, archiving and storing “just in case” turns out to be a fundamental filmmaking skill. The retention of stuff is both neurotic and purgative given enough time and editorial patience. It’s not hard to imagine how her editor David Cohen might have won the right to a co-director credit after hours of pouring over what must have been a staggering amount of material. And yet, Cohen and co-editor Marina Katz pull together a tidy, densely structured 80-minute running time that expands on the 10-minute duration the material took in an earlier form as a New York Times Op-Doc.
Together, Helfand and Cohen braid together a doughy challah of past and present, slipping neatly between material shot back in the 1990s and after with new footage showing her bringing home her adopted daughter, Theo. Soon, she’s a toddler, and practically her first word is an exasperated echo of her mom sighing “oy,” expressed most often when out of breath and in pain. It’s one of the nudges that sends Helfand on a quest to lose weight permanently in order to ensure she’ll be around for Theo in years to come.
As much of the above will suggest, it’s also a film saturated in Jewish identity and culture, to the point where one might even wonder if some viewers may come away quite bemused by some of the references. But as a meditation on bereavement, parenting and the burden and blessing of inheritances, Love & Stuff is about as universally accessible as it gets.
With: Judith Helfand
Production: A Judith Helfand Productions, Medalia Productions, Secret Sauce Media, Artemis Rising presentation in association with Impact Partners, Wavelength Productions production
Director: Judith Helfand
Screenwriters: Judith Helfand, David Cohen
Co-director: David Cohen
Producers: Judith Helfand, Hilla Medalia, Julia Parker Benello
Executive producers: Regina K. Scully, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Dan Cogan, Megan Gelstein, Susan Margolin, Sarah Cavanaugh, Nancy Blachman
Director of photography: Daniel B. Gold
Editors: David Cohen, Marina Katz
Music: Paul Brill, Michael Hearst
Sales: Cinetic Media, MetFilm Sales
No rating; 80 minutes
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