Interview with Kathy Leichter, Director of Here One Day
After Nina Leichter committed suicide her daughter Kathy moved back into her childhood home to maintain a connection to her lost mother. In 2004, after her success as a documentary filmmaker and an advocate for media activism, Kathy found the courage to examine her own deeply personal story with the same probing, critical attention she has brought to the stories of others. The result is Here One Day, a moving, powerful, and ultimately cathartic – for both filmmaker and viewer – story about family, grief, and mental illness. I sat down with Kathy to discuss the making of the film and what motivated her to tell her story now.
Death is difficult, both as part of the human experience and as a topic of discussion. When that death is a suicide, compounded by mental illness, it becomes one of the most taboo topics for discussion, perhaps even internally. My first question for Kathy was, of course, why? Why tell this story? Why discuss something so personal and painful so publicly? She did not hesitate with her answer for a second.
“I felt like I couldn’t ask someone else to tell their own story if I wasn’t willing to tell mine,” says Kathy. “I just realized if I lived to be ninety and I was on my deathbed and I hadn’t told this story, I would be kicking myself.”
Every filmmaker takes a giant leap of faith – think about the million things that could go wrong – and this is especially true of documentary film, where you might not find the story you expected. I wondered how that risk plays out in a documentary that focuses on a painful, family topic.
“I knew I would have to confront myself as an artist, and that was terrifying,” says Kathy. “But I definitely didn’t realize what I was making. I mean it was 2004 when I started, 9 years after my mom died, and as a family we had never really sat down and talked about it.”
Now, in 2013, with film completed and screening at festivals, Kathy seems to genuinely marvel at the fact that so many years passed in her own family without more open discussion about their loss, its causes, and its consequences. I ask if that prolonged silence was part of the motivation.
“Yes, I think so. Suicide is very scary to talk about,” says Kathy. “As difficult as it is, I’m excited to spark interest and understanding about suicide and mental illness. The film really came from inside of me, I didn’t know if anyone would care. But one thing I really hope is that encourages people to be more open and honest with the people around them.”
On the topic of honesty with those around you, I wondered how her family felt about the project, especially Kathy’s brother who had a strained relationship with their mother.
“My father was very supportive from the start, but my brother didn’t want to be in at all,” says Kathy. “But when we started and he saw some of the footage he felt like he needed to participate. He ultimately jumped in feet first and really opened up.”
A critical component of Here One Day – the thing that makes the film so powerful – is that Nina Leichter herself is in it, almost twenty years past her death. Via diary-like audio recordings, she appears in the film not as an abstraction, a statistic, or a victim. Instead, she is alive, vital, present, and very funny. These recordings are so central to the film, I almost forgot to ask Kathy about them.
“I knew the tapes existed in 1995 but I was nowhere near ready to listen to them. I waited til the very end, and listened. It was my mom alive again,” says Kathy. “I thought, wow we can put her in the movie.”
I do not want to sound flip here – but Kathy and I had a conversational double take at this point. I knew from the press materials that she had waited for many years to listen to the tapes, but I had never imagined that she was already making the film before doing so. I assumed that the tapes were the spark.
“When I started making the film, I still wasn’t ready to listen to them,” says Kathy. “ Now I wish I had more. There’s 10 hours of the tapes, but I wish I had hours and hours and hours of them.”
Kathy describes making Here One Day as the vehicle she used to confront her own grief. I’m willing to hazard that many other people will find that same comfort in this film. Loss is loss and grief is grief, whether the loss is a result of suicide or natural causes, whether the disease is of the mind or body. The gift that Kathy Leichter gives her mother Nina with this film is one of completeness – wife, mother, sufferer of bipolar disorder, artist, poet, a woman who took her own life, comedienne – she is all of these things simultaneously.
“Things are changing now in terms of education and awareness about suicide and mental illness. People are using the word ‘recovery’ now,” says Kathy. “Audiences seem to be moved by this story. They approach me and are so spectacular and so honest, so brave about their own stories. I’m grateful if I’ve touched people like that.”
To learn more about Here One Day, find screenings, or order the film, visit the website at www.hereoneday.com.