Students' documentary on death accepted at Sun Valley Film Festival
Andy Favor’s broadcasting students filmed a 102-year-old hospice patient talking about the pain of losing so many loved ones over the course of her life: “I pray for them to get better, or for the Lord to take them home.”
They heard a fidgety 6-year-old insist that he “would want to go to a pizza place” if he only had a few months to live. A 7-year-old declared he would “spend all the money I have myself (on) people in need” if faced with the same dilemma.
The five Eagle High School students have filmed hours of heart-wrenching video about critical end-of-life issues and boiled it down to a 10-minute documentary that will premiere at the Sun Valley Film Festival on Saturday. It is called “The Teal Chair,” and it was created in concert with Treasure Valley Hospice.
In the process, these high school juniors and seniors have mastered more than the art of filmmaking. They have learned about life and about death and about themselves. At ages 17 and 18, they have tackled questions many adults never broach in a lifetime. Their classmates may feel invincible; these teenagers know there is no such thing.
“There have been times when I’m sitting there and listening to the interviewees, and they get really emotional and you can start to, like, hear the cracks in their voice, and I’ve almost started crying,” said Alexa Adams, 17, the only junior and the only woman in the group. She aspires to be a screenwriter.
“It’s rough, you know,” she said. Death “is hard to talk about. And it’s hard to see other people talk about it, and it’s hard to see them hurt by it. But it’s definitely something that needs to be talked about.”
‘How am I going to finish my life?’
The project started out simply enough. Treasure Valley Hospice needed a two-minute video to post on its website. Kimberly Ouwehand, head of community relations for the hospice, figured it would be easy.
She would get a teal chair, the hospice’s official color. She’d have people sit in it and record their answers to a single question: What would you do if you had only a limited time to live?
“So often we miss a very important part of our life at the end of life because we’re so afraid of dying,” Ouwehand said. “We don’t just say, ‘OK, I’m at the end of my life, how am I going to finish my life? I want to finish it well.’
“I think it’s also hard for doctors. They’re healers. … And most people want to be healed.”
Then came a realization.
“I have no video or tech capabilities at all,” Ouwehand said. “I’m like, how am I going to do this video, edit it, get it on YouTube?”
Persuading unwilling students
Ouwehand’s son, Mike, had taken one of Favor’s video technology classes. At the end he brought home a DVD with three short films he’d made.
“I thought, ‘How cool would that be if I could get a couple of students to do community service or whatever and just do a short video,’ ” she recounted.
Last fall, she approached Favor. He asked his first-period broadcasting class if anyone was interested. The answer was a resounding “no.”
“We’re talking about making a documentary talking about death,” Favor said. “The original reaction was, ‘Hmm, I don’t know if I want to be part of that.’ I told the class, for one, they could earn a project grade for doing this stuff. That gave them a little bit of incentive. … But these are not the kind of conversations we have daily in a school setting.”
Favor finally persuaded three seniors, Declan Tomlinson, 18, Aiden Holcroft, 17, and Dylan Marusich, 17, to give it a try. Adams and senior Henry Hanson, 17, eventually joined in.
What strangers say about the unthinkable
The filmmakers’ first stop was JUMP’s Day of the Dead celebration in November. They tapped 20 strangers to sit in the teal chair and think about the generally unthinkable. The responses were sweet, silly and heartfelt.
“First I’d clean up my house so my kids wouldn’t be mad,” said one woman with a loud laugh. “All our junk!”
Others said: “Go all over the world.” “Forget about all of my unfinished projects.” “Skydiving.” “Travel and eat foods from all over the world.” “Give thanks to the people around me for what they’ve given me and give back to them.”
The documentary slowly grew beyond “what would you do” to include a wider discussion about end-of-life planning — an issue of growing importance in the Treasure Valley, with its rapidly increasing elderly population.
Ouwehand scheduled interviews with doctors and others in health care. Phyllis Redifer, 102, agreed to be interviewed in her Nampa living room. The original short video morphed into the 10-minute film-festival entry and then a 30-minute documentary that Ouwehand plans to screen at conferences and use in hospice training sessions; its public debut is planned for Thursday, April 26, at JUMP.
‘We’re just kids trying our best’
As the students devoted more and more time to the project, they began getting a little nervous.
“When it was presented to us, I didn’t know it would blow up to this scale,” Marusich said. “I know that we have talent and we can do something great, but, at the end of the day, we’re just kids trying our best.”
One recent Tuesday evening, the group brought four interviewees together to record the final segments for the long-form documentary. The students set up the teal chair in the borrowed conference room of a Downtown Boise law office. As the sky darkened, the brightly lit Capitol dome glowed through the office’s broad windows.
Everyone was a little giddy as they checked the sound and adjusted the lighting. They’d just heard that the short documentary had been accepted in the Sun Valley festival’s Future Filmmakers Forum.
Then Jodi Vanderpool, a 43-year-old executive with St. Luke’s Health System, began her story.
She talked about the pain of watching a friend die when they were both young women. She joked about writing a will to ensure that her dogs would always be cared for. Then she broached the “intimate opportunity” — discussing death with a loved one — and the room went still.
Vanderpool and her husband “found that it was easy to talk about what we would want those final moments and time to be like,” she said, “including if we wanted someone there singing. Or holding our hand. And the people we wanted in the room. And that might sound really small, but, to us it was ...”
Her voice trailed off. Her eyes welled up. The video camera kept rolling. The filmmakers captured the silence that followed. And the moment Vanderpool regained her composure. And the plans she said she would make if she found she had limited time left on this earth: lots of thank yous and maybe a safari.
One last memory
What about the documentary makers themselves? Hanson said he wasn’t sure what he would do if the end was near. Marusich said he’d tell the people in his life how much they meant to him. Tomlinson would spend time with his family. Adams said she’d travel the world with her family and friends.
Holcroft said he’d been giving the question a lot of thought. “I’d finish my senior year,” he said. “I think, after that, I’d dedicate a day to every person in my life. I’d spend an entire day with them and do whatever we wanted to do.”
He wants, he said, “to make one last memory with each person who’s touched me.”