It’s Sunday and one of those uncomfortable, hot, humid days in New York where you feel like you’re walking through a dog’s mouth. Fortunately, I spent the day mainly in the darkness of the public theater filming the first preparations for a Hamlet production that my buddy Oscar and his buddy from Juilliard, Sam Gold, are preparing for the following summer.
Oscar mainly works in films; he’s been in a lot. In the five years we have been together, I have seen him die countless times. I visited the set and watched him get stabbed to death over and over all day. He was also killed by rocket blast, various types of knife wounds, poison (twice), self-inflicted gunshot to the head (twice), drowning (nearly ), in his spaceship (again almost), by some strange and very deadly disease, telekinetic melting, and possibly others that I have now forgotten. He’s had more haircuts and body shapes than anyone I’ve ever known. After years of making people cry “Action! to him and doing endless press rounds in soulless hotel rooms, it’s great to see his enthusiasm grow at the prospect of returning to the stage in our adopted hometown. This theater workshop week is the happiest I’ve seen.
I just spent three months in an editing room finishing a documentary and I’m desperate to shoot something again. Filming from a new angle helps me clear my head. The actors and musicians of Hamlet the studio generously allowed me to enter with my camera to capture some of their work with my camera. Oscar and Sam want to keep documentation of their Hamlet process for archival purposes (also known as future nostalgia). I film them chewing their way through Shakespeare’s tragedy in a burst of creative energy. I am captivated by it.
During this week, I don’t think much about my sudden disgust at the smell of the palo santo wood that Oscar insists on burning during the workshop. However, a handful of positive pregnancy tests this Sunday afternoon reveal why I developed a sensitivity to that smell. The news is joyful for me because Oscar and I agreed that having a baby would be a wonderful thing. However, at this moment of realization, it is also frightening. I know this will challenge my work as a documentary filmmaker in which I am used to traveling alone for long periods of time, always being ready to get up and go where the story I’m working on dictates. It could become a test. However, in my thirties, my primal instincts slowly silenced that part of my brain that wanted to continue living like a lone wolf on the lookout for new stories to film. I’ll find a way to keep doing both, I assure myself. It has already been done.
It catches me off guard when Oscar arrives home earlier than expected that Sunday. He suddenly stands at the door of our apartment and he looks so sad. Not like the guy I said goodbye to in the theater that morning. He received a call. Her mom is sick, they didn’t know what it was yet, but it seems to be serious. He is afraid.
I’ve never seen anyone love their mother as much as Oscar loves his, an incredible woman, a fighter, a badass. She balances sweet and kind with a great temper and sharp humor.
After a few hours of pacing around the apartment not knowing what to do, and me not knowing how to share the news of my pregnancy now, I finally managed to whisper to her. Like a shy child on her first day of school.
We sit on the terrace, in the last sunny moments of the day, holding both the best and the worst news.
For the next year, only three things happen in our life. HamletOscar’s mother’s fight against aggressive cancer, and the baby who decided to join us in the midst of this turmoil.
Sometimes life is a crazy, wild ride, with birth and death racing through your timeline at the same speed. Like being hit by a hurricane, pants down. We weren’t prepared for the impact.
At first, we are completely numb to what is happening. We take it day by day, some days hour by hour, as things with Oscar’s mother get more serious. And then, at some point, I take my camera and start filming randomly. I convince myself that I’m shooting footage to cover Oscar and Sam’s work on the Hamlet production. And yeah, I’m filming him and Sam figuring out how to tackle this beast of a play and Oscar becoming Hamlet. But rehearsing the role of a man deeply mourning the death of his father is suddenly very close to home. Simultaneously, I film trips to the Miami hospital intensive care unit, lying upside down in the passenger seat, contorting my seven-month-pregnant body, to get a good shot of Oscar rehearsing his Hamlet lines while driving. Hamlet begins to become a small island on which Oscar was stranded in the midst of this unbearable loss. I film when we can’t sleep, I film when more and more members of Oscar’s family arrive with suitcases until we all live together in the same house. Day after day, they go through moments of such sadness. They speak in Spanish and I struggle to understand the words but I understand the incredible intimacy they share, something we don’t share at this level in Scandinavia.
I film dogs tanning in the sun, someone baking a cake for a birthday, Guatemalan dishes cooked noisily. Oscar on calls with his agent and the theatre, trying to get Werner Herzog’s incredible Dutch cellist to play. I film when Oscar sings for his mother after she passed out, as the family together watches the sunrise the morning of her death. The sky is bathed in colors. I continue to film when we have to resume our life in New York and I’m a month away from the birth. They laugh at my swollen body. I film when we are planning a wedding with a handful of people on the rooftop of friends on the only summer day in February. When I’m 10 days late and my movie premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, it gets a lot of awards and I have to tape my acceptance speeches from the delivery room.
Our son arrives and life is turned upside down again. I keep filming when Hamlet comes to life in our home, comes to life on stage, and when Oscar practices ending his life with poison – for the third time in his career. I film as Oscar has to work his way through a play, for four hours every night, that talks about the devastation of losing a parent.
I film our growing son and the proud look in my husband’s eyes when he looks at me through the lens. I film our lightest moments and our darkest moments. They rub against each other, but the lighter ones start to take over. I film incoherently and without a real objective. I just record us, I record to take some distance and filter reality through my different camera lenses. My camera is always there, ready to shoot. In the end, I don’t even ask before shooting, I film the people who visit us, the guy who works in the garage, Oscar when he sleeps. Sometimes I don’t film anything for days and other times I film non-stop, even with my arm free while I breastfeed my baby with the other.
I wonder if people who work as accountants work frantically on numbers in similar life moments.
Maybe I film to digest my own reality. Seeing my life through my camera bit by bit helps me in a way.
I organize these images in folders, I save them on a second disk, I process them as I do for my other films. But I know that while this may be the strongest, most honest, most unfiltered footage I’ve ever captured, it will probably never be seen by anyone.
I wonder how many stories sit there on a shelf for a lifetime because they’re just too close to the life of whoever filmed, wrote or composed them. A lot, I imagine.
I ask so much of the people I film for my documentaries. I film my subjects in their most intimate moments. I burst into their lives and capture them as they make difficult life decisions, break up or have sex. And yet, when I point the camera in the direction of my own life, I’m cowardly and can’t imagine sharing it with anyone.
But, I guess, time will have to tell. Preparation is everything.