Last week, Jenna Rosher's nonfiction feature directorial début, Junior, took the Audience Award at the Sheffield Doc / Fest, its international premiere. (It also won Best Feature Doc at this year's Woodstock Film Festival in New York last month, following its world premiere at SILVERDOCS.)
Junior profiles the complex and intertwined relationship of 75-year-old Eddie Belasco and his 98-year-old mother, Josephine. Despite three failed marriages, and three lovely daughters, the alpha woman in "Junior's" life has always been "Ma," and Rosher deftly stitches together crackling and vibrant direct cinema scenes between the two of them, sweet archival family footage, and luminous glimpses of the larger world of the city of San Francisco where they reside, to create a nuanced and deeply moving look at this most primal of human connections. (Pictured, Eddie standing proudly by Josephine's side as she receives her high-school diploma.)
If at first Junior appears to be some Grand Guignol-style Punch and Judy show with Junior and Ma barking at one another and sniping and fussing about, it soon turns into a story of two people connected by a decades-long bond helping one another find his or her way through illness, debility, and critical life (and death) decisions. We watch as Eddie turns from a screaming goomba with a cutting tongue into a vulnerable and frightened man who is losing his sight, and a lost little boy who is about to lose his precious mother. Josephine, like most people who make it to 98 years of age, is her own woman, taking shit from no one and living life on her own terms. And she deals with her own mortality in much the same way. Once Eddie expresses to her that he will be okay without her, she embarks on her own journey to meet her maker with him by her side. Rosher's camera lingers patiently and persistently as they gently and lovingly say goodbye after sharing a lifetime together. Really beautiful stuff.
Belasco was Rosher's mother's first husband and she first met Eddie when she was nine years old. At that time, he was a sharp-suited showman, promoting the all-girl topless rock band, the Ladybirds, and raising havoc in Vegas with his polyester-suited, cigar-chomping cronies. Twenty years later, Rosher finds him in the last couple of seasons of heading up a musical theater for children in San Francisco, aging quickly, going blind from complications caused by a woefully lax healthcare regime for his diabetes (he still drinks like a fish and doesn't eat right), but still full of piss and vinegar, viscerally angry at his own degenerating face and body, and looking into the maw of a potentially very lonely dotage. Instead of a mother bringing him a piping-hot plate of freshly-cooked pasta and paper-thin veal cutlets, he's got a very pissed-off daughter shoving a candy bar into his mouth when he goes into diabetic shock during a rehearsal after a night of drinking.
Rosher, a long-time producer and cinematographer (Jesus Camp), has a keen eye for the telling detail and is adept at creating an intimacy with her subjects that provides a level of insight and understanding that makes this piece resonant and rich. Her shooting mixed with Mark Binder's nuanced and layered sound design and Mark Wike's fantastic score, along with deft editing by Johnnie Spence, makes for a delightful, memorable and heartwarming story of a son's undying love for his mother.
Another prize-winner at Sheffield tells a story of yet another mother/son bond that just won't quit, even though from the beginning of the piece, the mother, Jolana Remová (the filmmaker's grandmother) expresses a bit of concern that at the age of 40-something, her son, Lubomír, still shows no signs of joining the real world, let alone considering doing anything remotely normal for a man his age like making a living or looking for a wife. Miro Remo's 24-minute Arsy-Versy is an exceptionally accomplished (and hilarious) piece of work and walked away with the Wallflower Press Student Doc Award at Sheffield (among a very strong group of films.) It also recently garnered a Special Jury Prize at Jihlava in Czech Republic this past month.
Remo is a student in the Film and Television program at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia and for this film he profiles a man who has decided to forgo the day-to-day world of meaningless work and robo-people that he finds so full of hypocrisy and banality, and decides to live in nature's world, flying away to a land "where only butterflies live." What's so brilliant about Remo's style is that he also invites himself and his crew into Lubos' world and, together, they cinematically create this alternate universe with its upside-down point of view for the rest of us. You can see a bit of it here.
Being the mother of an anarchist, no matter how mild and goofy, can be a trial, but Jolana perseveres in her hope that one day Lubos will normalize somehow and join the rest of us in our robo-world. But it's not very likely, and she's more or less okay with that.
I'll have more from Sheffield's great program in later posts.