Under the Responsibilities of Care, A Family Reunites in 'América,' premiering Monday, October 7, 2019
Three brothers confront adult reality when they care for their 93-year-old grandmother.
Diego is a young circus artist living away from his family in a dull landscape of tourist beaches and all-inclusive resorts when he is suddenly called to return home. His grandmother, América, fell from her bed, causing his father to be jailed under accusation of elder neglect.
Directed by Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, América has its national broadcast debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday, October 7 at 9 p.m. (check local listings). The film is a Lifelike Docs production in association with American Documentary | POV. POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 32nd season. The film is a co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB).
Diego sees poetry and purpose in this tragedy. He believes that América, despite her immobility and advanced dementia, fell willfully, to bring a separated family back together. He reunites with his estranged brothers and leaves his old life behind.
But now they face the considerable challenges of learning to care for América while navigating an opaque court system bereft of moral authority to free their father.
And yet the greatest challenge might be learning to work together. As the brothers clash over money and the distribution of labor, difficult questions take the foreground – who decides what becomes of América, and how long will they put their lives on hold to care for her?
“América is a beautiful portrait of family and the duties that come with as our loved ones age,” said Chris White, executive producer for POV. “Though specific to Diego and his brothers’ home in Mexico, the joys and challenges of elder care will resonate with everyone, no matter where they live or whom they consider family.”
We didn’t set out to make América, or even go looking for a story like it. Rather, it was born out of a chance meeting.
We were working in Puerto Vallarta on a different project that was going nowhere fast when we met Diego at a mutual friend’s birthday party. As anyone who has met him can attest, his small frame belies his outsized and gregarious personality. He regaled us with stories about his work as a circus artist and his love for Alejandro Jodorowsky. He ended up crashing with us that night.
It was the first of many. As we slinked around Vallarta for a few more months trying to make something of our other project, Diego was our constant companion. And when one day he announced that he had to return home to Colima to care for his grandmother, we followed him not as a subject but as a friend.
There we met América for the first time and were taken by the secret language Diego seemed to share with her. Though at that point it wasn’t clear where their story was headed, or that there was a story at all, we felt their dynamic was immediately more compelling than whatever else we were working on. With our friendship with Diego as the foundation, we ended up following the family for the next three years, with Erick intermittently living with them to film.
To be sure, it wasn’t hard to be intrigued by Diego and his brothers – this hangout crew of artists who juggled circus, marijuana, and a search for deeper meaning alongside the responsibilities of adulthood. They were our fellow creatives and age peers. Like them, we also had aging family, some with the early, devastating flashes of dementia. Unlike them, we were far from home. To see other young men at similar points in their lives commit themselves full-time to caregiving was inspiring.
Still, the situation presented entirely new challenges for us as filmmakers. Though more people are living with dementia than ever before, their stories remain underrepresented on screen, in part because they are difficult stories to tell, perhaps especially for documentarians. A common misconception is that those with dementia cease to be themselves as they lose their memory. For Diego and for us, América's personhood was never up for question, and in place of long-term consent, we sought to renew participation with her each time we filmed.
It was important for us to remain alert to América’s desires and needs when filming. On the rare occasion that she seemed bothered by the camera, we stopped. Then in editing, we had to determine what was essential to portray honestly the immense physical and emotional demands of care, whilst respecting her dignity and privacy. This determination wasn’t always easy, and ultimately audiences will decide whether they think we got it right.
Throughout the process, we found Diego’s example guiding – for him, América’s vulnerability and dependence never negated her humanity. Beyond the confines of dementia, every day presented new opportunities for joy, laughter, beauty and love. In this spirit, we wanted the film to emphasize all that América had to give, rather than what she required.
Nearly everyone deals with a care situation at some point in their lives – whether it be for a parent, grandparent, other family member or themselves. But few will be celebrated in a documentary film for their efforts. Though the brothers deserve enormous credit for the energy and tenderness they brought to América, there are countless millions whose work as caregivers goes unseen and undervalued.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine work more essential to human life than caregiving, and yet this labor is commonly unpaid or underpaid. It is also work typically performed by women, especially immigrant women and women of color, who are sometimes imagined to be “natural” caregivers. We reject this sexist, racist premise! The brothers demonstrate that anyone—even twenty-something circus artists—can find value and dignity in care work.
The question is whether society can reflect that value. The fall of real wages in recent decades has made it difficult to support a family on a single income, forcing traditional caregivers to seek work outside the home. Family and friends who can step in sacrifice their own wellbeing to do so, and paid caregivers toil for low wages without basic workplace protections. As can be seen in the film, care work is real work, it’s hard work, and it deserves the same social recognition and entitlements afforded to other types of labor.
But rather than meet the growing need for care with greater assistance for families and care workers, governments have instead enacted steep cutbacks in public services. Today, high quality care is available only to those who can afford to pay for it, and vulnerable populations are left with few options.
We believe everyone is entitled to high quality care, regardless of income, and we stand with the movements of care workers, mothers, elderly people and people with disabilities fighting for universal and comprehensive care coverage that expands options for people needing care and their families, and provides a living wage for care workers.
América is the story of three brothers who come together to care for their grandmother. Though in its domestic intimacy it may seem far removed from the politics of care, it was a yawning lack of social support which brought them together in the first place, and which also birthed the stressors that tore them apart. As viewers watch Diego and his brothers struggle to give the best care possible to América, we hope they will be inspired to imagine a society that regards caregiving as the essential life-giving work that it is.
About the Filmmakers:
Chase Whiteside, Director/Producer/Editor/Cinematographer
Erick Stoll is a non-fiction filmmaker from Cincinnati, Ohio. He co-founded the online political series New Left Media, which tracked conservative and progressive movements under the Obama presidency and co-directed the short docs Lifelike, a dispassionate reconstruction of the taxidermic process, and Good White People, which follows the displacement of a black family from a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, and won Best Short prizes at Camden and Indie Memphis, among others. He was featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s 2017 New Faces Of Independent Film along with co-director Chase Whiteside. América is his first feature documentary.
Erick Stoll, Director/Producer/Editor
Chase Whiteside is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and designer. He co-founded the political web series New Left Media and co-directed the documentary short Lifelike. More recently, he worked with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt on a short about gun trafficking between the US and Mexico, and singer Alicia Keys on her campaign for criminal justice reform. His short profile of Ricardo Aca, an undocumented immigrant working in a Trump hotel, received widespread media coverage during the 2016 elections, including comment from Trump himself. He was featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s 2017 New Faces Of Independent Film along with co-director Erick Stoll. América is his first feature documentary.
Director: Erick Stoll, Chase Whiteside
Producers: Erick Stoll, Chase Whiteside
Cinematographer: Erick Stoll
Editors: Erick Stoll, Chase Whiteside
Sound Designer: Christian Giraud
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White
Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) is the leader in the development, production, acquisition and distribution of non-commercial educational and cultural media that is representative of Latino people, or addresses issues of particular interest to Latino Americans. These programs are produced for dissemination to public broadcasting stations and other public telecommunication entities. Latino Public Broadcasting provides a voice to the diverse Latino community throughout the United States and is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Latino Public Broadcasting produces VOCES, the signature Latino arts and culture documentary series on PBS devoted to exploring the rich diversity of the Latino cultural experience. Between 2009 and 2019, LPB programs won over 125 awards, including two prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards as well as Emmys, Imagen Awards and the Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Director, Documentary. In addition, LPB has been the recipient of the Norman Lear Legacy Award and the NCLR Alma Award for Special Achievement – Year in Documentaries. Sandie Viquez Pedlow is executive director of LPB; Edward James Olmos is co-founder and chairman.