We had the absolute pleasure of talking with director Kathy Leichter about her experience of making her movie, Here One Day. Here One Day is an intimate look into Kathy’s mother’s experience with Bipolar Disorder as well as her own experience, as her daughter.
Question: How did you come up with the idea of Here One Day?
Kathy Leichter: I’ve been a filmmaker for over 25 years, since 1988. I never thought I would make a film about my own story. I was very interested in social change, wanting to educate audiences about poverty and other social issues. Nine years after mom died, I had done a lot of grieving, I’d seen a therapist, gotten married, had a child. I had never dealt with the loss of a parent. I was grieving, but didn’t realize what would happen to me nine years after my mom’s death when I found out I was having a second son. My second son was a messenger for a new phase of healing. I was pregnant with a boy, I was devastated because I thought it was inevitable that I would have a daughter. And then I realized it wasn’t a desire to have a daughter, but instead, it was really a desire to have my mother back! I wanted to retrieve and repair my relationship with my mother through a daughter. So instead, I began making Here One Day. The process was mercurial and a documentary. I began. The film is about my mother; it was how I was going to reconnect to my mother. The film helped me move further through the grieving process. It was liberating, healing, growing. And now it is helping others to do some of that internal and external healing work as well.
Question: One thing that comes to mind is the issue of shame and stigma. How do you imagine people are going to respond to the film when it’s out there?
Kathy Leichter: Yeah, I think I was very much a victim of stigma. When I started making the film, I think I had told 20-25 people that my mother had died by suicide. Nine years later, I still couldn’t say suicide. I didn’t talk about it or her a lot. There was both stigma and shame. I felt very alone. Survivors often feel alone because of shame and stigma. The film was very personal. I was not thinking, “What are people going to do with this information?” I actually thought, “Who is going to care about this besides me and my family?” Now I get requests daily from strangers to see the film! I didn’t understand it was such a universal story; it came from a personal place, but no matter what background, whether you are form Scotland, Australia, India—in the many countries Here one Day has shown–these experiences affect everyone. Of course culture matters but people can watch the film and see themselves in it no matter where they are from, no matter their specific circumstances. It is a universal story of family and relationships, recovery and resilience. Talking about and sharing the story dissolves the stigma. I’m not going to be silent about this. I’m going to tell this story out loud.
Question: The issue of what to say or not to say, is a powerful theme on our website forum. You have shared benefits of being so public. Are there any downsides?
Kathy Leichter: I had to navigate and consider my relationships with family members and discuss making the film with them right away to let them know that people would hear our story. At first, my brother felt the story was private. He didn’t want to show his feelings on camera. I wondered how not to have him in the story. Then, he saw a short fundraising trailer and he realized that it was his story too and he decided to be in the film. It was very courageous. I wondered about how my dad was going to feel. I wondered if I was going to be judged. I felt incredibly high stakes as a storyteller and an artist, telling my mother’s story. I wanted everyone to be seen as a whole person. It was important to show everyone as a human being. My mother is a whole person. I didn’t want her to just be labeled as someone with mental illness. I wanted audiences to know all of who she was: poet, teacher, political activist. I didn’t want anyone to be seen simply as villain or victim. Life and people are more complicated than that. Could I paint a true picture of our family experience? I didn’t want to get it wrong. Who we were. Can I do this in a way that is true? Could I accurately portray what I wanted people to know and what I wanted them to see?
Question: So no regrets?
Kathy Leichter: I would have to think about that carefully. I’m not prone to regrets, so no. I would say instead that Here One Day has surprised me. The journey of making it has been incredible. The rewards are boundless, continue to be boundless. I have received the most amazing emails from people reacting to the film; a student at a community college, an older man who attempted suicide, and another person whose mother has Bipolar Disorder. These are the people the film is touching. There are thousands. Making Here One Day expanded my relationships with my father, brother, and aunt and all of the extremely talented people I worked with. The process was deeply rewarding. No regrets come to mind. My only regret is that she is not here to see what I have done and this amazing transformation. I have imagined showing her the film. There will likely be an NPR story on the radio. If she could know that! She would love it! That is the one thing I would change, that she could be here.
Question: It is interesting for me to think how the film is an idea that embodies her spirit. That is where it came from. A sense of longing for her spirit and willingness to be direct about topics that were off limits.
Kathy Leichter: Exactly. I didn’t know that at the time. She was a mental health activist. She was really active with NAMI—The National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am going to screen with NAMI on Saturday! I work with their groups all over the country. Doing this activism and continuing along her path. She was also playful and I am too.
Question: What was it like for you to listen to your mother’s tapes?
There were moments where I felt I had to look at what I was doing as a journalist and daughter to be going through her things, is it ethically okay? I felt she left these things, documents and recordings. She says in the movie, “I don’t know if anyone will come across these accidentally.” She was wondering who might read these documents. As a son and daughter; were these for us to read? My mom was un-boundaried in some ways. It was not out of her character to share personal things. I also felt that it may be passive aggressive on my part, or aggressive; you’re not here, this stuff is up for grabs, you don’t have the right to say yes or no anymore mom. There were some moments while making Here One Day that I was terrified that she would be furious or angry with me even though she was dead. It was healthy to help me work through my relationship with her. Our relationship changed over time, past the time of her death. It’s still changing. For instance, I had to examine why I thought she might be angry with me. I wondered, what is that about? She was a poet and also a storyteller and I am a storyteller too. I had to navigate the mother, daughter relationship all along the way of making Here One Day. In the end, I realized that she would be proud. I had to go through this process and ask her if it was okay. But, in the end, I had to decide that it was okay to include her writings. In fact, it was necessary so that audiences could really get to know who she was. We also decided to include her audiotape recordings. This was hours of audio that she had recorded—like an audio diary, really. We first made the film without this audio; I was terrified to listen to her voice, I thought I couldn’t do it emotionally. I waited 16 years after her death, until we were way into the editing process, but I knew that the material was critical. It was my mom talking! Her voice, her thoughts and feelings—live. My editor and I listened to them. It was healing and incredible. It was great to hear her voice. Funny. Angry. Witty. Wry. Loving. Sad. Her real voice.
Question: One of the things that is another hot topic has to do with the boundaries – bipolar as a trait and bipolar as a disorder. Have you thought about that?
Kathy Leichter: I really struggled with that and I never quite understood it. When I was around 10 years old she told me she was taking medication for her moods. I didn’t know who was my real mother. The one on the drugs or the one without them. When you go to the doctor, and there is a physical condition that makes it hard to function in the world, it becomes something to address. I think about what you are asking all the time. We create labels to understand and describe physical and emotional states. We are comfortable describing it as an illness. In some cases, it does seem like an illness, a physical state that needs to be changed. I have friends in the mad pride movement who believe that it is society that is sick, not the individual. I think this dialogue and conversation is important and interesting. My mother’s experience is what is called bipolar. At the time it was so debilitating. Was it the medication or side effects that compounded her physical and mental state? I am always wondering about an answer. I don’t have one. The debate is healthy and important. I am wary of using vocabulary. It is politicized. Personal. It is an illness in certain environments and not in others.
Question: I think the end state of suicidal obsession, is not a state of wellness, it is difficult to say when does that begin? I have this conversation with a colleague who is bipolar and his take is that it is not an illness but I also know for him to live the way he does, has required huge adjustment on everyone around him. Is that reasonable to ask of everyone?
Kathy Leichter: I imagine another society where my mother could have navigated her situation and not ended up where she was. Where we are supportive of people who don’t fit the mold that we have created about what is normal. It is important to look at this. Is it an illness or a trait? We can’t always think in terms of the individual. Sometimes society is considered ill, what could we do differently to help individuals in these situations? One step would be to provide parity that would also reduce stigma, raise awareness, and provide additional types of support. Talk therapy. Art therapy. Diet. Nutrition. Different ways to shift away from medical model. Many approaches are now about recovery and finding ways to live successfully with one’s experiences;. This wasn’t in the lexicon when my mother was alive. Recovery is empowering and interesting. I like thinking about what does society can do differently.
Question: What did you learn about bipolar disorder from listening to her tapes?
Kathy Leichter: I learned so much. I wouldn’t say I learned more about bipolar disorder. I learned more about my mom. The tapes expanded my understanding of what she was up against as a human being. The incredible way that she interpreted the world. Once, when she was visiting me she said she needed to go lay down and turn out the lights because the world felt so stimulating; not stimulating in a positive way, but rather exhausting, difficult, too much. At the end, she couldn’t go from one moment to the next and know how to get there. It didn’t justify her killing herself. I wish she had made a different choice, but the tapes helped me understand more. They gave me a sense of how hard and also how interesting things were for her-what a cool mind she had.
Question: Any final thoughts about the movie or responses you have gotten, where you are going next?
Kathy Leichter: Making Here One Day is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. The movie is screening across country. Here One Day is being used to help communities talk about issues of mental health and suicide. It is screening in community centers, medical, nursing, social work and journalism schools, churches, synagogues, law enforcement agencies, for mental health professionals and suicide survivor groups. I give out my contact information so viewers can contact me and I am available in person and am willing to travel all over for viewings and discussions. This is the work I love to do. A pastor at a church where I screened the film in Baltimore, said, “This is your calling.” I believe that; this is my service to provide.