When West Palm Beach filmmaker Eric Gordon moved back in with his parents to help care for his father, who was starting to show signs of dementia, he did not expect it to become the subject of his next documentary.
But six years later, he completed When All That’s Left Is Love and now he is busy traveling the country, showing his handiwork at film festivals and racking up awards for this highly personal look at Alzheimer’s disease and the challenges facing caregivers. On Wednesday, at the Movies of Delray, Gordon hosts a free showing of his film, the beginning of what he calls his “community engagement screenings.”
“It was a very difficult film to make,” he says of the emotional journey. “As I watched it, obviously it was heart-breaking. I didn’t get immune to it, because I still cry every time I watch it. But I feel it’s a very important topic to discuss, because through our tragedy and our mistakes I’m hoping we can educate caregivers on what they may be facing, on what not to do.”
Because he was filming his parents constantly, Gordon’s mother Marilyn quickly adjusted to having the camera present. “I think my mom was used to me filming, because literally I think that camera was on my hand 24 hours a day,” Gordon says. “So I don’t think my mom ever really noticed the camera.”
“At the time, I didn’t really know what he was filming. I thought he was just filming the family,” says Mrs. Gordon. Ignoring the camera was easy, she notes, “because I was just concentrating on the situation of taking care of my husband’s needs.”
Eric’s dad, Shelly Gordon, had been a savvy businessman, creating his own company selling and distributing Disney memorabilia. “My father was a very funny, charismatic man, probably the best salesman I’ve ever met in my life. He was a great guy. I remember him working a lot, very hard, always providing for the family.”
The Gordons also worked hard at hiding Shelly’s dementia, even from their son. But soon, caring for her husband became too much for Marilyn.
One day, she called Eric in a panic. “I remember very specifically my mom calling me and telling me that my dad was lost,” that he had wandered away from their Boynton Beach home. “And that was the first time I ever heard that he had Alzheimer’s. It was a very, very scary day. He eventually found his way home, thank God.”
A neurologist told the Gordons that nothing could be done to help Shelly, but they were able to get him into a clinical trial at the Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment Center in Lake Worth. Eric Gordon asked if he could film the program, and that is how When All That’s Left Is Love began. But during those trials, Shelly Gordon passed away and filming came to a halt.
Not for long, however. Eric heard of a neighbor of the Gordons, Arline Rothman, who also was struggling with taking care of her Alzheimer’s afflicted husband, Hy. “I approached Arline Rothman and asks if I could just film for one day,” says Eric. “And that one day turned into years.
“I knew some of the footage I had and I realized that the film was becoming a lot bigger than what I had initially anticipated. It was supposed to be only a 10-minute short for my final project in school,” he says. “I had to develop a relationship with her children and explain what I was doing, and they also allowed me into their lives, for which I’m really, truly grateful. Because I wouldn’t have a feature film without the Rothman family.”
Asked about the challenges of making this film, Gordon says, “It was a very difficult film to make because it was so personal to me. Working through the difficult, heart-breaking moments of my own family, to be able to edit that and share that with the world was challenging. I didn’t want it to look abusive. Arline loved her husband dearly, but she was at a breaking point. So I think those hundreds of hours of editing were really to carefully balance the love between the subject and her husband, yet showing what was truly going on.”
The reaction he receives at film festivals is “unbelievable. Caregivers come up to me and hug me and thank me for shedding light on them, for giving them a voice of what’s happening behind closed doors,” says Gordon. At this point, he has shown the film at 45 festivals, garnering 13 awards, including the Joseph Constantino Emerging Filmmaker Award, for which he is particularly proud.
Mrs. Gordon recalls the first time she saw the film. “I was in shock. I didn’t realize I was as angry. That wasn’t my nature. I’m usually a very supportive, kind person. I think I was so emotionally spent, I just had lost it. I was surprised at my emotions.”
Gordon has enlisted a consultant to shop around his film, hoping to get it on public television. But for now, his focus is on community engagement screenings like the one in Delray at the end of the month. Organizations from AARP to the Alzheimer’s Association to Comfort Care will be participating, informing caregivers of the resources available to them.
“Our target audiences are caregivers, people affected by Alzheimer’s, children who may have family members who have Alzheimer’s,” Gordon notes. “But what I say is if we are fortunate to live long enough, we’re all going to be caregivers in some way.”
WHEN ALL THAT’S LEFT IS LOVE, Movies of Delray, 7421 West Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. Wed., Oct. 30. Complimentary buffet breakfast @ 9 a.m., Free film screening @ 10 a.m. Advance reservations suggested, at bit.ly/2KdwPqd.