Ann Arbor native Laura Checkoway on her Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Edith + Eddie’

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 5:39pm

Edith + Eddie

Edith + Eddie Buy this photo
Kartemquin Films

“Edith + Eddie,” an Oscar-nominated documentary short, follows the love story of the oldest interracial newlywed couple. The couple, both in their 90s, fall victim to a custody battle that threatens to separate them from each other. Since Edith suffers from mild dementia, her two daughters, Patricia and Rebecca, control her future. Rebecca wants to respect Edith’s wish to stay with Eddie, while Patricia wants to sell her mother’s home and move her to Florida. The court appoints a third-party, Jessica Niesen, to act as Edith’s guardian. Unfortunately, Edith is forced to leave behind her home and Eddie, who dies shortly after her departure.

Director, producer and editor Laura Checkoway, an Ann Arbor native, began her career as a writer and journalist. She views her transition from journalism to documentary filmmaking as a “natural progression and extension,” a chance to use the same tools but with a “broader palette.” When she met a young woman named Lucky for a magazine story, which was published as a photo-essay, Checkoway decided it was just the beginning of the story. She started filming and followed the woman for six years, resulting in her first feature film, called “Lucky.” Checkoway talked, in a phone interview with Daily Arts, about her buzz-worthy film.

The Michigan Daily: How did you come across this story and why did you feel it was important to share?

LC: A friend texted a photo of this couple that was circulating online after they had gotten married. I just kept looking at the picture and wanted to know more about them and what it would be like to fall in love at that time in your life. I connected the dots and they invited me down to meet them. They were proud of the love that they found in each other and wanted to share their story. They were really open and generous with letting us in. It started as a look at love and then it turned into a portrait of elder rights and the legal guardianship system. It was unexpected what happened with them, but the approach remained the same, which was to stay true to Edith and Eddie and what they were going through at this point in their lives. As a documentary filmmaker, this is what you sign up for when you make this type of film: watching life as it unfolds.

TMD: What challenges and advantages does the short form pose for documentary filmmaking?

LC: You can tell a really full story in a short amount of time. I believe that this film is an example of that. I didn’t set out knowing what the length would be. I thought it would likely be a longer film. When I went to edit it, I realized how powerful and potent it was in 30 minutes. There’s a famous quote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” I think that says a lot. Sometimes in poetry you can say so much just using what is essential. So that came into play here as I was editing the film.

TMD: There was mostly audio when Jessica Niesen and Patricia arrive to take Edith away to Florida. How did you interact with people who were not willing to participate in the documentary? And how were you able to tell this portion of the story when the door was literally shut on the camera?

LC: The film witnesses what happens through Edith and Eddie’s eyes. When the guardian showed up that night, Edith had never met her and that was actually her only interaction with her. We did ask to speak with Jessica and Patricia when we were outside, but they didn’t want to talk to us. When we were made to leave the house, only afterwards we realized that Eddie’s audio was still rolling. We were standing out in the rain and still picking up the conversation.

TMD: Were there any moments during filming that were difficult to witness or where you felt the urge to intervene?

LC: Yes, my heart was shredded. We saw Edith’s wishes not being honored and both she and Eddie being so disregarded. There was also a lot happening behind the scenes. We know that we’re there to do the work, but we also really care about the people that we’re making the film with. That’s a balance of letting your heart lead and just making what feels like the best choices.

TMD: Were you ever able to follow up with Edith?

LC: We continued to follow the story for more than a year after what you see in the film, following Rebecca fighting to bring her mom back home. That took a lot of twists and turns. We did not get to see Edith again and even Rebecca did not get to see Edith again.

TMD: What did you discover about race and elder care through making this film?

LC: As Eddie says in the film, I might be paraphrasing: “It’s not the color of the skin. It’s the heart. And the color of the heart is red.” It was beautiful to see that at almost 100-years old, and with all of the history Edith and Eddie lived through, they were able to come together at this time in their lives. I wasn’t aware of the legal guardianship system. It wasn’t on my radar when I entered this. I learned a lot about how people who are appointed to protect other people often wind up exploiting them. We learned that what happened with Edith and Eddie is actually happening with elders all over the country. It’s really alarming. We hope that this film will serve as a wake-up call.

“Edith + Eddie” will be showing at the Michigan Theater this Wednesday, Feb. 21 as part of the Oscar Nominated Shorts - Documentary A screening.