The Indie Memphis Film Festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and River City Rising is covering the event with a three part series themed "Giving When the Living Gets Tough”. Here, in part two, we discuss the documentary film Good Grief by directors Melissa Sweazy and Laura Jean Hocking and Director of Photography Sarah Fleming.
If there were any dry eyes in the theatre, mine weren’t among them. Acclaimed, award-winning directors Melissa Sweazy and Laura Jean Hocking collaborated with Sarah Fleming to bring us, according to Sweazy, the stories of “normal human beings who have been made extraordinary by their circumstances.” It became quickly apparent as the documentary feature film Good Grief began rolling that those who had suffered through unimaginable loss would teach us they still had much left to give.
Good Grief takes us inside the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief in Memphis, where children and teenagers whose lives have been changed forever by the sudden, traumatic death of loved ones are given the time and space to grieve while trying to put the pieces of a shattered life back together. Many have gone from living a relatively common life to suddenly being considered the “weird kid” in school when details of their family tragedies are played and replayed on local news outlets; when an event so deeply personal is broadcast, sometimes, as public fodder for ratings, and the reminders of a life now torn apart are inescapable. But here, at the Center for Good Grief, they find solace and support because here, everyone gets it. Sweazy shares, “they do it right because they’re aware. It was immediately apparent to me that this is not a job for the people here, it is a calling [and] they radiate strength and comfort.”
Over the two year process of filming, under the protective presence of center director Angela Hamblen Kelly, Sweazy and Hocking saw through the lives of these young people the power in giving when the living gets tough, though the word “tough” is most certainly an understatement considering their circumstances. They met the family wherein a wife was killed by her husband and their two young children were now at the center. It was a highly publicized story, with both Sweazy and a relative echoing the same sentiments: everyone knew of Heather’s death but not the story after; not how they (the family) were putting their lives back together. In some of the film’s most moving moments, the very children enveloped in a world of grief deliver laughter to those around them. This was important to capture, says Sweazy, as they set out to create a film that was about hope, not death; a film that encapsulated humanity’s best and taught us that “we must keep moving forward.”
Throughout the course of Good Grief we meet children, teenagers and adults who have commited to a life of giving back to camp goers, as only they can, because they once walked these very trails themselves. We watch as A.J., a young man who accidentally killed his father, rebuilds his relationship with his sister and shared off-camera with Sweazy, “I want to be able to reach other people with this, not let it destroy me.” She says his maturity and grace blew her away, both which are evident as we watch his journey unfold on the big screen. We also learn from a young man named Isaiah who initially showed resistance to “attending camp” following his loss, but who now returns regularly to help at Camp Good Grief. He spoke one of the film’s most powerful statements as it pertains to a life of giving after experiencing tragedy:
“Get help. Feel better. Help someone else. Repeat.”
And in this we see that hope Sweazy, Hocking and Fleming set out to convey, with a film about grief that really isn’t about grief at all but about the resilience of the human spirit.
Good Grief won the 2017 Indie Memphis Film Festival Award for Best Hometowner Feature. An encore presentation will be showing at 4 p.m. on Saturday, November 11 at Malco Collierville Towne Cinema Grill.