Nominated for an Oscar this year, Laura Checkoway's short documentary Edith+Eddie tells the story of two nonagenarians in Alexandria, Virginia—Edith Hill, a black woman, and Eddie Harrison, a white man—who married in June 2014 after ten years of companionship. The happy couple resided in Edith’s home of 44 years with her daughter Rebecca Wright but, as the film records, had to be forcibly separated after a court-appointed attorney ruled that Edith should be moved to Florida to live with her other daughter. Checkoway, a Michigan native now living in New York, is a protege of local documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), who served as executive producer on the short and hooked her up with documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films. Edith+Eddie opens Friday at Music Box as part of two programs collecting this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts.
How did you first hear about this story?
A photo of the couple was circulating online. They had gotten married at age 95, 96, and they were being called America's oldest interracial newlyweds. A friend texted the picture to me, and I just kept looking at it. I wanted to know more about them and what it would be like to fall in love at that time in your life, so I connected the dots to the family and they invited me down to meet them. Within a few days I was on a bus from New York to Virginia, and actually the opening scene in the film, where we see them dancing together, was the first time we met.
When you learned about their relationship, did you feel it was different from people who were meeting earlier in life, a different set of stresses and circumstances that shaped their relationship?
I feel like they cherished each other even more because every day was something to hold dear. At the same time, that tenderness and excitement that you feel [when you're] young, to see that that doesn't change, whatever that feeling is that we get inside when we're fond of someone, that that remains true and possible throughout your whole life.
How did you first get involved with Kartemquin?
Steve James is a mentor of mine. I met him while I was making my first documentary, which is called Lucky. . . . He could really relate to a lot of what he heard I was going through with the making of that film. He suggested I see his film Stevie, which [also] follows a difficult person. . . . I don't know how Steve feels about me saying this, but he has been like an angel in my life.
What have you learned from him, either in your personal contact or through his films?
What he saw in Lucky, which he could relate to in Stevie, is not shying away from difficult people who don't have a story necessarily of overcoming or assimilating. It's just as important to pay attention to the kinds of people we wouldn’t usually see onscreen. [I've learned from] his integrity and his openness and willingness to deal with the messiness of life and all the complications that we, as people, go through. And even though Steve started with Hoop Dreams, which is a classic, I also see him continue to step his game up in different ways with every film. To see that level of not just consistency, but getting better with time is really inspiring.
I understand that producing this was more or less a one-woman operation. Can you describe the process of creating the film?
I wouldn't say a one-woman operation. I typically have one other collaborator, either a cameraman with me or Corwin [Lamm], who was a collaborator throughout, helped with the editing and coproducing as well. We would get there by any means possible when I felt it was important to be there, stay over at people's houses, sometimes drive back that very same night. I edited it on my laptop. So yeah, it was really bare-bones. There wouldn't have been any other way to make this film. I'm thankful that it was created in the way that it was, because it feels like the power of the story is what really shines through.
Edith was ruled legally incapacitated in 2011, which was a few years before the marriage, for reasons of dementia. In the time you spent with her, did she seem to be cognizant of what was going on? Did she forget things? What was your take on her mental sharpness?
She was really clear in some ways and, like many of us, not always so clear in others. It's a really nuanced spectrum, and what we've learned is that often, when somebody is deemed to be incapacitated or that box is checked that says you have dementia, there's no thought or recognition of what a broad spectrum that is. She was very lucid about wanting to be with Eddie, and her love for him, and she often spoke almost in prayer. She would recite poetry, she would sing to him over meals. It was really beautiful to get to know her.
How much time did you spend with her altogether during the shoot?
It was just under three months from the time that we met until the end of the film. We continued to film for another year and some change, following Rebecca's fight to bring her mom back home and also recognizing that this is a bigger issue that's happening to elders all over the country. I spoke with activists and advocates all over and families who have been affected by the legal guardianship system as well. Then the story hit a standstill, and when the ending that we were waiting for never came, I went to edit and chose to make it a shorter film.
What did this project teach you about elder-care law? Do you think it should be reformed?
Absolutely. I wasn't aware of the legal guardianship system when I entered into this. It's alarming to learn that what happens with Edith and Eddie is happening to elders all over the country, and that it's often experienced in isolation, so families don't know what hit them. I have heard horror stories from all over, and there's a through line even though everyone's family and situation is unique. It's a system that was implemented with intentions of protecting elders and now has become a feeding ground. The people who are appointed to protect are exploiting and taking advantage of those very same people . . . There's no federal oversight—guardianship is a state-by-state system—so there's no statistics on it at all, and that's what allows this sort of situation to fester. It's estimated that there are between 1.5 and three million people in this country under court-appointed guardianship. That's a really big range, right? So there's not even the basic numbers here, let alone people watching over what's happening. v