Life and death

  • Amy Jenkins Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Courtesy image—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, January 31, 2018 6:10PM

Amy Jenkins didn’t know she was filming a documentary. Yes, she was recording her life, interactions with her family members, nature scenes, but as far as making a movie? That wasn’t part of the plan. Of course, watching through a lens as one by one, her family members were diagnosed with the cancerous tumors that would eventually kill them wasn’t part of the plan, either.

“What I was doing at the time...was essentially trying to film my family to hold onto them in a somewhat ephemeral way through video,” Jenkins said.

Over the course of seven years between 1999-2006, Jenkins had her little Sony handheld rolling at all occasions, trying to capture pieces of her family, to hold them earthbound as their physical forms slipped away. First, it was her sister, stricken with ovarian cancer, and on its heels, her mother with a lump in her breast; finally, Jenkins’ brother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Through it all, Jenkins kept filming, as they laughed, loved, coped, and finally, let go.

The tapes sat in a box for years, dormant, full of memories hidden away in the dark.

“I was having a hard time creatively, and [my husband] John kept saying ‘Amy, you’ve got to deal with that box!’ I was like ‘Ahh, I have to deal with the box!’” Jenkins said.

Jenkins rewatched all the footage, logged it, and set out to turn it into a film.

“I realized it needed to be a film and shared with the public,” Jenkins said. “It was kind of like backing into a film, in a weird way.”

The result is “Instructions on Parting,” which will premier at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on Feb. 16 as part of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight 2018.

The film itself is tragic and beautiful, a celebration of the life cycle and an intimate look into its final stages and the inevitability of death. It’s tough to watch at times, but powerful, necessary and relatable. Death and life coexist in a symbiotic relationship throughout the film, thematically, metaphorically and literally. Juxtaposed with the home video footage, Jenkins has studio shots, the background a black-curtained void, as she places her hands on the living bodies of her loved ones, surgery-scarred and growing ever frail. And, the other side, a pair of elderly hands caressing Jenkins’ own pregnant belly. Jenkins’ first child, Audrey, was born during the course of the film, and the snippets of her growing up are an important parallel.

“Audrey’s coming into her own as a human being I see as this very interesting parallel trajectory to the letting go of personhood of my family members,” Jenkins said. “As she’s finding her voice and her personhood, they are consciously and unconsciously letting all that go. It’s this really interesting crossing trajectory and it wouldn’t be a film without both.”

As she was experiencing these dual paths of life and death, Jenkins, without really knowing why, was also filming natural occurrences in her own backyard, documenting the passage of time by filming from the same windowsill each day for a year, checking in on a growing family of robins nested by her door, following a spider as it trapped and feasted on a butterfly. That footage served as the perfect metaphorical juxtaposition for “Instructions on Parting.”

“It’s been a beautiful experience,” Jenkins said, “especially aligning the nature with the family footage and seeing the commonalities – to examine that, to put myself in a position where I need to examine our biological processes which are relentless. We’re all heading to that same place and it’s clear when you watch in nature but it’s hard to also reflect that back on yourself. The film made me become much more aware.”

Watching the footage dredged up a lifetime of memories for Jenkins, some of them painful, but she said it was a “joyful” editing process, as she had one last chance to spend time with her departed family.

“It was like ‘We’re all still hanging out together,’ Jenkins said. “It was not sad, it actually continued to create a presence in my life of them.”

Tickets to the Feb. 16 MoMA premiere go on sale Friday, Feb. 2 and can be purchased at www.moma.org/calendar/events/4020?locale=en.