Earlier this summer, Skin & Bones director Jennifer Roberts found herself in awe as she filmed a woman named Pamela make three trips up and down the stairs of her Vancouver walk-up apartment. One trip was for the wheelchair for her eight-year-old son Isaac, who has Down syndrome, is nonverbal and has mobility issues. Another trip was for all the stuff Isaac may need when they leave the house, and the third was to carry Isaac himself.
“To watch her do that was just overwhelming,” said Roberts. “She was graceful and humble, but just such a powerful woman. It was really, really amazing to watch and to be there…. to experience it and be able to film it.”
Roberts and her crew were shooting Pamela as part of unique new project to produce a 24-hour-long, day-in-the-life documentary profiling 10 primary caregivers across Canada. The documentary is the cornerstone of a campaign for Petro-Canada’s CareMakers Foundation by creative agency McCann. (Read our story about the strategy and the campaign here. See the full documentary at 24HoursOfCare.ca, and the 60-second TV ad is below.)
While more than eight million Canadians have some responsibility to provide care for a family member, many don’t understand what that entails. McCann’s goal was to show exactly what a caregiver does in a day, and that caregiving is a 24-hour-a-day responsibility. They hired Roberts to do that for them.
The documentary includes some footage shot by the caregivers themselves using supplied iPhone kits and some direction from Roberts. But for more than two weeks in late July and early August, Roberts and a small team went across the country, visiting with each caregiver and capturing everything they did over the course of a day to provide an ultra-realistic portrait of what it means to be the primary caregiver to a loved one. The Message spoke with Roberts about how they pulled it off.
How did you feel when you first got the proposal? It immediately resonated with me because my background is in photojournalism, so what I really like doing is working with people to tell their stories, and particularly people who have stories that maybe aren’t getting a lot of attention.
It felt like we were helping give people a voice… a lot of family caregiving happens at home, [and] people don’t see what it entails. These people are mostly on 24 hours a day, they’re unpaid, they’re working with family members. For me, it was really fascinating to be able to shed some light on that experience. So immediately it appealed to me.
Appealed to you, but was it daunting at all? I wouldn’t say daunting. I would say it was exciting… it was an ambitious project, but I could see how it was going to come together.
So you’d show up and spend most of a day with them and capture almost a full 24 hour period? One to two days… it was mostly children, I think that we split it over two days because it was just too taxing.
Before we went out and filmed, I spoke a lot with each caregiver. They would send me their journals [shot with their iPhones], and in addition to that, we would have phone chats and I got to know their story a little bit, and they kind of built a comfort level with me, I think.
I was really humbled by just how quickly they were willing to open up, and I do feel like a lot of it had to do with the relationship building we did in advance… I got to know people’s stories and maybe did a little bit of research on the conditions their families were working with, just to make sure that we were there to film the parts of their story that we all felt were very important to tell.
For Pamela and Isaac out in Vancouver, we knew that his music class is a really important part of his life. So we made sure that we were going to be out there filming him on a day he had music class.
Can you share any other moments that stood out for you? I think that there were moments of just tenderness that happened that were just really humbling. There was a moment with Raluca and her son Logan (who is on the Autism spectrum and non-verbal)… She has a lot of challenges and he needs a lot of support.
There’s a moment where she’s taking his blood pressure and he puts his head into her head, and it’s just like [gasps]. I remember watching it as it happened and it was just so sweet. Some of the raw emotion and raw love that we were present for, and that we were able to include in the film, just felt really, really special.
Everyone wanted to make sure we get an organic look at what the story was—not just the really challenging moments but also this beautiful love as well, because it is family or loved ones caring for a family or loved one.
Is it possible to identify a greatest challenge that had to be overcome, maybe a lesson learned as a director? I think the greatest challenge was going through all the footage, just trying to really make sure that we were being truthful to their story. These are families letting us into really intimate moments in their life. And so this was a project where I was very, very conscious of how they were being portrayed, how we were portraying their story. Just making sure that everything felt truthful and respectful to their family.
There are some intimate moments that didn’t make the cut because it didn’t feel like they moved the story along—anything that felt sensational but didn’t really tell their story, that’s not what this film is about.
I felt like almost in a partnership with the caregivers, because they were really helping us—it wasn’t just parachuting in to tell their story. My way of looking at it was working with them to tell their story, versus just us telling their story.
And that was the objective: helping tell their story to change people’s thinking and understanding of caregiving. Exactly. You’re giving a glimpse into what a typical life is for these caregivers, which is not something that a lot of us would have seen or would have understood. We might have a vague idea, but it’s really something that happens in private. So we’re really trying to shed light on that, and create awareness and also give a voice to people that maybe felt like they didn’t have one prior to this.