My very first job after film school was with Martin Duckworth. It was 1991 at the National Film
Board of Canada and I was the assistant editor on Martin’s film about the first Gulf War,
Peacekeeper at War. From the beginning, Martin’s uncompromising resolve to speak his truth
through his films inspired me. We remained in touch ever since, but it wasn’t until four years
ago, (after his wife Audrey Shirmer’s diagnoses with Alzheimer’s), that our friendship started to
grow. Every few weeks, I would go to their house and film them together with their autistic
daughter Jacqueline. At each visit, I was moved by this families’ raw and uncompromising
authenticity of character. I had no doubt that this would resonate on film. In the following years,
I also learned of the many adventurous and sometimes tragic events
of Martin’s fascinating life story.
Even though Martin faced a near-death car accident in Mexico and witnessed carnage while
filming on the front lines of war-torn countries around the world, he remained optimistic.
Through hardship and death, Martin has developed a keen sense of the preciousness of every
moment of life. This is something I also learned to appreciate after my mother’s prolonged
battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease in the nineties. Like Martin, my experiences living with illness
and death transformed my priorities in life. Living through this,
the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
I’m making Dear Audrey as a tribute to Audrey, Martin and his family. As we collectively pause
during this new COVID era, we reset what’s important and turn with urgency towards living. In
this spirit, Dear Audrey is a timely gift, a reminder of the choices we make, the families we
create, and an invitation for all of us to take better care of each other.
Gritty real-life cinema
Every time I asked Martin if I could come over to film, to my surprise he never said no. Over those four years, we compiled nearly 50 shoot days (and at least 90 hours of documentary footage). As a result, the audience has privileged, incredible access to behind-the-scenes, intimate moments, as Martin and his family face the hardest days of their lives. This is a gritty, no-holds-barred portrait of a family in crisis, shot and edited in a style that’s inspired by the cinéma vérité tradition. With Martin Duckworth narrating in his own words (distilled from about 15 hours of interviews), we are guided through the many ups and downs of his remarkable life story.
The film is made up of the stuff of real life. The real-life moments of an aging couple still in love, struggling and persevering despite the odds. The real life of an autistic daughter, now an adult, who is dealing with loss. Combining impromptu interviews, spontaneous conversations and moving moments from their lives, the present-day narrative gives the viewer a powerful sense of actually being there. A world onto itself, highlighted by the ambiance of their dimly lit apartment, full of shadows. An existence almost suspended in time.
Of the more than 55 film projects I’ve edited or directed, the three films that most influenced my vision for Dear Audrey are God Comes as a Child, Elefanti and Reel Injun. God Comes as a Child tells the story of my mother, Florence Perrella, during her final years living with Lou Gehrig’s disease, as she writes poetry about this difficult chapter of her life. Elefanti tells the story of 90-year-old Mario Lattoni, who was placed in an internment camp in Ontario during World War II, and the death of his son from a heroin overdose. It shows us the consequences of his three-year internment, and the consequences for other Italians, as well as Germans and Japanese. In both God Comes as a Child and Elefanti, I’m intrigued by complex characters that let you in, so that you can grow close to them as you hear their powerful stories. In Reel Injun (as in Dear Audrey), excerpts from other well-known films are carefully integrated with historical archives and in-depth interviews. The result is an engaging visual tapestry that instills many more layers of meaning into the film’s thesis. With their epic blend of historical films and archives, and intimate portrait of hardship and endurance, these three films informed my creative choices as I made Dear Audrey.
Whimsical escapes through animation
The use of animation infuses Dear Audrey with a magical and spirited texture. Although it only makes up about five minutes of this feature film, animation plays an important role. Only animation can interpret Martin’s many compelling memories in a way that seems to make them soar, defying the rules of gravity. One scene that comes to mind is when Martin describes how he hiked up to Machu Picchu and camped among the ruins. They let you do that sort of thing back in 1971. While looking up at the stars that night, he made up his mind to marry Audrey and start a family. Animation brings us to Machu Picchu, as well as to many other places, providing playful and refreshing escapes throughout the film.
Impressionistic blend of archives
In addition to animation, Dear Audrey contains an impressionistic and stylized blend of excerpts from some of the 30 films that Martin directed, the 100 films that he shot and his countless family photos, as well as period archives, in order to illustrate the most pivotal events of his life. Each historical flashback points and builds towards the day that Martin fell in love with Audrey. For example, the biggest turning point in Martin’s story is Vietnam. The things he witnessed while filming there in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, would transform him from a carefree hippie to a man committed to world peace and social justice. Soon after, Martin would meet Audrey at an anti-war event in Toronto.
Subtext and meaning through music
Music plays an important role in the stylized sound-scaping of Dear Audrey, bringing to it a sense of playfulness, quirkiness and hope. It is a narrative force that adds subtext and meaning to almost every scene. It keeps the audience guessing and also energized, and is an effective way of counteracting the hardship and darkness in the film.
Social relevance and impact
At its heart, Dear Audrey is a love story. It’s a life-affirming portrait of a man whose love for his wife and family never falters. He never gives up, and he has a profound understanding of how valuable every moment is.
Most crucial to bringing a more universal and larger-than-life quality to the film is Martin’s intrepid life story. It is an essential counterbalance to his family’s present-day battle with Alzheimer’s. Through this integration of the most inspirational moments of Martin’s life with his current family crisis, Martin becomes the hero of this story, and the film takes on an epic quality. Flashbacks to the most pivotal moments in his life are interspersed with scenes of the family’s present-day lives and their struggle with Alzheimer’s. It’s a life that resembles something out of a novel. A life we could only imagine.
Raised during the Great Depression, Martin began his career at the age of 30, at the peak of the hippie revolution in the sixties. The films he made are artful, socially conscious and award-winning. He travelled the globe, directed 30 films and was the cinematographer for 100, through which he saw the horrors of war in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan and Afghanistan. He survived a near-fatal 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 received one of Quebec’s highest honours, the Prix Albert-Tessier for lifetime achievement in cinema. The true strength of Dear Audrey lies in the symbiotic interplay between Martin’s compelling life story and his current situation with Audrey and Jacqueline, coping with Alzheimer’s. While each thread would confidently hold its own, together their force multiplies and becomes epic.
Sometimes I see a weariness in Martin’s eyes, yet despite his crushing family crisis, he doesn’t give up. Because of his enduring optimism, I’m convinced Dear Audrey will resonate and be inspirational. Every time I turned on my camera or edited a small scene, the magic of Audrey and Martin’s warmth and passion for life shined through. Yet even though Martin has become my mentor and role model, this film isn’t a glorifying homage to a man, nor is it a retrospective of his many films. This is a raw and honest depiction of a sometimes-flawed human being, who’s fighting the toughest battle of his life, and selflessly struggling to do the right thing.
an 89 minute documentary by Jeremiah Hayes
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