an 89 minute documentary by Jeremiah Hayes.
She forgets the faces and names of close family, struggles to find her words when trying to speak and she’s easily disoriented. At age 77, Audrey Shirmer suffers from stage six Alzheimer’s, the second to final stage. Give her a chance, (in a moment of your inattention), and she’ll slip out the door, wander off and get lost in the city.
“We went to see Dostoevsky’s play The Idiot… At the end of the first act, there’s a very dramatic scene. Lots of shouting and it comes to a climax. I turned to Audrey and she wasn’t there. I’ve lost her. She’s disappeared. It was probably too emotional for her… So we all dispersed around the streets, looking for Audrey. It was a cold March night. Police had to be called. Twenty cop cars searched all over that part of Montreal. Couldn’t find her. Finally gave up about eleven o’clock. All went home. Totally discouraged… Then at midnight, the police called to say that they found her at the Mount-Royal metro trying to warm up. She didn’t even have a coat.” - Martin
Recently, Audrey’s 43-year-old autistic daughter Jacqueline has cut herself off from her mother, refusing to see or talk to her. The prospect of witnessing her mother slowly inch towards death is too horrific for Jacqueline. So Audrey’s 86 year old husband Martin Duckworth, (after an adventurous life traveling the world as a peace activist and prolific documentary filmmaker), has decided to put down his camera to devote his remaining days to holding his family together and caring for Audrey and Jacqueline.
Audrey is a talented activist/photographer and the rock that held her family together. Her photography includes such historical figures as Jane Fonda, Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem, and John Kerry. But as time goes by, she seems less there. These days she looks out into the distance with an intensity that is both warm and content but withdrawn, as she wanders the halls of their cluttered Montreal apartment. Martin, tall, gentle and soft-spoken, knows that he’s fighting a losing battle as his wife falls deeper into her disease. But married 47 years now, Martin never falters… Audrey remains the love of his life.
Their three children are all grown up now and have moved out on their own. Yet Jacqueline’s autism remains a challenge. She’s like a child caught in a grown woman’s body. Recently, when her mother was stricken by a violent Alzheimer’s related seizure, Audrey’s condition suddenly worsened. Seeing Audrey’s drastic deterioration was a shock to Jacqueline’s system. Now Audrey asks, “Where’s Jackie?”, wondering why her daughter won’t visit her. Martin describes how he’s doing everything he can to reunite them, “before it’s too late”.
“Jacqueline knows she’s gonna lose one of her parents. It’s very hard on her. She keeps asking how long I’m gonna live. So I keep assuring her that it’s at least ten more years. And then she also wants to know how long Audrey’s gonna live… They say that she’s in the second to last phase… of the seven phases, she’s in phase six… A year or two, I guess.” – Martin
“I don’t remember when the wandering off started with Audrey. It’s been happening for 2 or 3 years anyway. If she went out the front door I would let her wander off and follow her to try to figure out where she thought she was going. I learned that she didn’t know where she was going either. It’s as if she wandered just for the sake of wandering. There’s no end to that wandering… It’s very similar to how Jacqueline used to run away. Jacqueline never had an objective in mind. The only explanation she had was, “well that’s what my feet do. I don’t tell my feet. My feet tell me to do it… to run away.” – Martin
Caring for Jacqueline
“She’s quite a wild creature. But you should have seen her twenty years ago. She was ten times wilder… Jacqueline was born in 1976. We were happy to have a second child. But she had serious behavioural problems. She started disappearing at the age of two. We would wake up in the morning and realize that she wasn’t in her room. We’d phone the police to help find her. She did so for the next 35 years or so. Disappearing all the time. We’d find her downtown with other runaways and she’d get into trouble. She’d get picked up by guys who submitted her to sex. So we’d have her checked her for sexual diseases every time she was found.” – Martin
Hoping to stop her from running away, Martin slept most nights on the floor outside Jacqueline’s bedroom door. He didn’t sleep with Audrey for years. This put a strain on Martin and Audrey’s marriage. But in the 1970s, there was far less awareness of autism, which led Martin to react harshly to Jacqueline, thinking she was merely being a difficult child.
“I behaved very badly with Jacqueline, not knowing what was wrong. I’d shout at her and sometimes slap her, which I hate to admit. I’m very ashamed of myself. But Audrey stuck with me. I’m so lucky to have had such a faithful partner. It wasn’t until Jacqueline’s early teens where it became evident to our doctors that she might have something called autism. Well, we never heard of autism. Audrey never knew what was wrong with her, but she never failed to make her feel that she was a loved child, whereas I did fail.” – Martin
Martin’s life sounds like that of a novel. A life we can only imagine. He’s traveled the world, directed 30 films, was the cinematographer for at least 100, through which he saw the horrors of war in Vietnam, Cambodia, Hiroshima, Kuwait and Afghanistan. He’s survived a near-death and a prolonged coma after a tragic car accident in Mexico, was married three times, is a father to seven children, and has still found time to be a committed advocate for world peace. Recently, he was celebrated by one of Quebec’s highest honours, the Prix Albert-Tessier for lifetime achievement in cinema.
Scattered throughout Martin’s present-day family struggle with Alzheimer’s, Dear Audrey will regularly flashback to pivotal moments in his life. Told in Martin’s own words, these will be his most important turning points that led him to meet the love of his life… Audrey. Each flashback will be carefully recreated using excerpts from Martin’s many documentaries, family home movies, original animation, period archives and Audrey’s photographs. All this will be seamlessly interwoven throughout his current drama with Jacqueline and Audrey, coping with Alzheimer’s.
Martin has led a tragic, yet adventurous life. Raised during The Great Depression, his parents were ardent pacifists. Values he would carry with him all his life. Martin’s film career began at age 28, in the heart of the ‘60’s social revolution.
“We were all hippies. That was the hippie period. Free art, free love, free pot… and I’m ashamed to say that went along with the crowd in those endeavours.- Martin
His early films were artful and impressionistic reflections on love, family and humanity, yet they were not overtly political. But the things he witnessed filming in Vietnam in 1969, during the height of the war, would transform him.
“Vietnam engaged me in heart and mind. It was a turning point in my filmmaking. So I came back and became even more active in the anti-war movement and decided that from then on I wanted to make films that had some political use. It turned me off films just for art's sake.” - Martin
Soon after, Martin would meet a young and beautiful activist/photographer at an anti-Vietnam war gathering in Toronto… Audrey. They would fall in love, promise to have three children and live the rest of their lives together.
Now married 47 years, Martin and Audrey are still very much in love. This is their love story. They raised a family, fought for peace and collaborated on films together. From the day she was diagnosed, Audrey accepted her fate with grace. Her mother had Alzheimer’s, so Audrey knew what she was in for. But as Audrey’s condition worsens, Jacqueline and Martin are facing the hardest days of their lives, the slow loss and inevitable death of a loving wife and mother.
“I've been in this house for 42 years… So it's not the same without Audrey. But she's here... She’s everywhere. She's in all these books and records and films and pictures. She's very much here. So I intend to stay here, for the rest of my life.” - Martin
Dear Audrey is a story told by renowned filmmaker Martin Duckworth, a man who tirelessly strives to do the right thing, fight for peace, Audrey and his family. His epic life story, along with his strength and grace in the face of what Audrey and Jacqueline are living today, is palpable. Viewers will be touched by such elegance under fire.ho tirelessly strives to do the right thing, fight for peace, Audrey and his family. His epic life story, along with his strength and grace in the face of what Audrey and Jacqueline are living today, are palpable. Viewers will be touched by such elegance under fire.
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