Judith Helfand’s newest film, Love and Stuff, puts the past in conversation with the present, and the results are moving.
Helfand is known for socially-engaged films such as Blue Vinyl, an Emmy-nominated documentary about health risks from the PVC industry, and Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (reviewed previously, here). This film is more personal.
Love and Stuff uses occasional footage from Helfand’s 1997 documentary, A Healthy Baby Girl, about her return home to her family after a radical hysterectomy for cervical cancer, at the age of 25, caused by the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol), which she was exposed to in utero. This footage is interspersed with new scenes of the hospice-care and death in 2013 of her mother; Helfand’s adoption of a baby girl; and new struggles with her health as a mother 50 years older than her child.
The early video quality is often poor, which adds to the startling interplay between Love and Stuff’s present and its past.
“Shall we go?” her mother says in the 1990s, after we see her receive a terminal diagnosis for colon cancer in 2013.
“Where are we going?” younger Judith asks.
“We’re celebrating life, actually,” her mother says.
Another time, Helfand tells her mother, “You’re a nice lady. I like you. I’ll keep you.”
“I hope you will for a long time,” her mother says calmly but somewhat sadly.
While there are plenty of events shown in the film—her mother’s decline, family and friends at gatherings, a newborn becoming a toddler and then a terrible two—its most interesting thread is Helfand’s preoccupation with loss. She says she seems to be more preoccupied with the past than the present, but in fact she is preoccupied with both: she is acutely aware of events but is unable to bear their loss, either.
As a younger woman she takes time to shoot video of every angle of her parents’ house when they downsize—“everything that could not be packed, before it was gone”—and asks a workman to cut a piece of tin from a shed being demolished, which her mother calls junk. She makes her mother come through the front door on camera, so she will always have the sound of the door opening and closing, as she knows and loves.
“You’re obsessive,” her mother says at the time. “You’re obsessing with this, and I just can’t handle it. And I think you’re reacting to this like it’s a loss in your life. You’re gonna lose a lot of other precious things in your life as time goes on.”
“I miss her voice, her looks,” Helfand says in the present, even as she gives them to us in the film.
She hoards her mother’s belongings, including a piano, furniture, and boxes of knickknacks that stack to the ceiling of her small apartment. Some of the boxes are labeled “shoot and then give away.” She cannot give them away.
“This is not an archaeological dig,” a friend chides. “This is your life.”
And that is the dichotomy of the film’s title. There is our love for others, and being present for them and responsible to them. But there is also the devoted saving of “stuff”—memories, cherished belongings, personal and familial stories—that might otherwise fade into oblivion. And this effort often causes other kinds of stuff: emotional issues, neuroses, the inability to function.
Helfand’s mother continues to counsel her from the past. “Lots of things happen in life, and changes are made, and we have to be able to adjust to it,” she says.
“You’re gonna have a very fruitful life,” she says. “I just know it.”
Without giving away too much, Helfand makes hard decisions and takes extraordinary steps to do what is right for her child, herself, and others we meet. She also does right by her mother’s memory, with this film.
“Transitions and goodbyes are notoriously difficult for everyone,” Helfand says in voiceover. “I guess it’s a good thing we get so much practice.”
She cuts to her mother saying, “‘Bye,” after some earlier visit. Her mom laughs and blows a kiss, then she’s out the door and into the dark.
Love and Stuff is available for viewing here, as part of the 30th Washington Jewish Film Festival, on December 10. Online rental includes a moderated discussion with Judith Helfand.
Read more by John Griswold here.