Doctor-turned-patient Grace Damman was grievously injured in a head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2008. After being in a coma for a month and a half and enduring nine surgeries, she was sufficiently recovered to leave the hospital. The choice facing documentary filmmakers Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman was to jump or miss the boat.
“It was kind of the last moment we could start this film and make it work, because Grace was coming home from a year in rehab hospitals,” Lipman recalls. “I’m not sure we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We expected that something fascinating would unfold. We had no idea what it would look like.”
That uncertainty, Cohen says, “was both daunting and the most compelling part of making a film like this. Following the story and not knowing what was gong to happen. We were witnessing; we didn’t know where we were going. We expected it to be easier [than it was] because the whole first year after the accident, Grace was in a euphoric place about her life. We didn’t think [her long-term recovery] would be a walk in the park, but filming Grace going through the difficult, dark process was incredibly challenging.”
States of Grace intimately and sensitively portrays Damman’s arduous transition from top-drawer caregiver to dependent care-recipient (with the lingering possibility of regaining her original ability and status). Her partner, Fu Schroeder, and their adopted (and now teenage) daughter, Sabrina, carry the brunt of the weight, which transforms the film into an unflinching study of the bonds and frustrations of human relationships under exceptional stress.
The family lives at the picturesque Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, and the Buddhist vibe and setting infuses the film with a distinct Northern California flavor. Yet States of Grace, which screens this week at venues around the Bay Area after premiering at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, speaks eloquently to viewers whose visceral identification with Grace and Fu’s predicament trumps any geographical, religious, social and sexual differences.
“So far our sense is it does transcend those boundaries,” Cohen says. “Fu is this [female] Buddhist priest with a shaved head, yet [audiences] just see them as people they can relate to.” Lipman adds, “People forget how idiosyncratic they are because what comes through is the level of caring. It just looks like a regular family struggling to deal.”
Cohen is a friend of Dammann’s, and that connection allowed the filmmakers access to the family. But the process turned out to be especially complicated for Cohen, who had to balance her personal relationship with the camera’s (and editor Kenji Yamamoto’s) unflinching perspective.
“We wanted to be as true to the experience as we could be,” says Lipman, who shot the film. “Without showing some of the very dark moments and the struggle that Grace went through, not only wouldn’t it be a good movie, but it wouldn’t be useful in the world because it wouldn’t ring true to people’s experiences with situations like this.”
The result is that States of Grace achieves a relevance and a power that not only reaches beyond its subjects, but goes well beyond the initial vague intentions of the filmmakers.
“I don’t know that we had an agenda at the beginning,” Lipman muses. “Helen and I have a long history of making social issue documentaries where there have been clear agendas, and we’ve done the research and pre-interviews. Of course, it never quite works out that way. But here, it was being grabbed by the situation itself and running with it.”
It’s especially gratifying to Cohen and Lipman that their gutsy gamble to seize this project will have ripple effects they couldn’t have imagined.
“States of Grace is a philosophical film about the meaning of life and people reinventing themselves and coming to terms with who they are after a really horrible, tragic accident,” Cohen says. “What the film also does that we didn’t anticipate at all is [serve as] a real resource for medical education, rehab practitioners, caregivers, social workers and psychologists working with families who go through trauma or illness. So it has some work to do in the world that we didn’t anticipate.”
Most moviegoers and TV viewers are interested in documentaries solely for their content, but the filmmaker’s choices and compromises, combined with fortuitous accidents, are equally compelling. Embarking on a cinema verité film is taking a leap without a net, but the risk is offset by the freedom. “This kind of filmmaking allows us to bring more of our artist selves to the filmmaking process, which is really gratifying,” Cohen says. “It’s hard to imagine going back to straight-up documentary filmmaking after an experience like this, where we were able to bring so much more poetry and our creative sensibilities.”
“When we were finishing this up, I thought I am never doing another film like this again,” Lipman adds. “We are finishing a historical film now, but Helen and I are scheming on another cinema verité project. There’s something compelling about this kind of filmmaking, once you dust yourself off and pick yourself back up.”
States of Grace screens Monday and Tuesday, January 5-6, 2015 at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco, Jan. 6 at the New Parkway in Oakland, Jan. 7 at the Vogue in San Francisco, Jan. 8 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (with Grace and Fu on hand) and Jan. 12 at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For more information, go to openstudioproductions.com.