I’ve been called brave twice in my life. Albeit, by New York City standards. The first time, I left a comfortable, cushy lawyer job and followed my dream of becoming a filmmaker. The second time is after people watch this film.
I certainly never set out to be brave. In the first instance, I was propelled by naivete and a freakish tolerance for uncertainty. In the second, I found myself with footage of the most profound experience of my life. While I had a sense that my story will resonate with others, the biggest hurdle turned out to be me.
Personal documentaries are for some reason, suspect. As Doug Block, one of my heroes in the genre cautions in his Rule Number One on personal doc filmmaking – be prepared to answer: “who the fuck are you to be putting your life up there on screen?!?” It took me seven years to get over myself, and decided that despite humiliation and ridicule lurking ahead, this is a story I had to share. Nonetheless, by the time I started to edit this film, I was still kicking and screaming. Just ask my editor.
Ten years ago, LuLu was my best friend and my ex-something – it’s still hard to say exactly what she was to me. LuLu was like no one you’ve ever met. A hard-living, chain-smoking rebel with a tender heart. A farm girl, a former cheerleader and a master of profanity. A world-class cancer researcher and beloved professor. LuLu — Dr. Louise Nutter — had just discovered a new anti-cancer drug when she found out she was dying of breast cancer herself at 42. Shot during the last 15 months of LuLu’s life, The LuLu Sessions is a raw, intimate, at times humorous story about me showing up for her, and both of us together, testing the limits of our bond while taking on life’s end.
I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I had just started film school in New York. I was headed to shoot a friend’s wedding in San Francisco when LuLu asked me to stop in Minneapolis and go with her to her biopsy. When the bride got cold feet and cancelled the wedding, I ended up staying with LuLu’s and started filming. I caught the moment the oncologist told LuLu her cancer was malignant. Just like that I was in the thick of a crisis, and the footage I’d just shot became the opening sequence of the film.
The next 15 months – LuLu’s last – became an adventure that rattled her assumptions and values and shined a spotlight on the bond between LuLu and me, and its boundaries. Our friendship and our intimacy continued to morph to uncharted places. Later, when Lulu returned to her family farm in Vermont for stability and solace, she had to battle resurrected ghosts instead. Dying became a process of shedding long-held but stale presumptions, obligations and relationships and forging new ones.
In The LuLu Sessions, I’ve tried to explore the transformations that death can hasten. Shooting in the style of cinema verite, I was at once the filmmaker and a character. We tried to live life “normally,” but hardly any of it was normal. The camera became the watchful third pair of eyes, chronicling our characters and our frailties. It exposed us in ways that are uncomfortable and punishing.
In a culture where death equals failure and is talked about in hushed voices, dying remains deeply private and involuntary – often lonely and frightening. This experience with LuLu has made it less frightening for me, and made me keenly aware of the unfinished business in my own life. I hope The LuLu Sessions helps change our perceptions and sparks loud, passionate dialogues. I hope you use this film as an impetus to start your own no holds barred “turkey talks” with someone you love. Tell them you love them. Tell them you forgive them. Tell them thank you. Just tell them!
Ten years in the making, The LuLu Sessions is finally making its way through the film festival circuit. This film is my testimony about the sometimes annoying tenacity of love and our surprising capacity for pushing past limits – in love, friendship, forgiveness and life itself, in the face of impending mortality. This film is one of the first ever personal documentaries seen through the lens of a Chinese American, queer woman. Yet, at its heart, I believe LuLu binds audiences – straight or gay, Asian or not, man or woman, young or old – to the most universal of stories, that of love and death.
I hope this modern day “Thelma and Louise” meets “Tuesdays with Morrie”, will prod all of us to wonder what our own final adventure will look like, and with whom we will we share this last ride.