In Missoula last weekend during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, I attended the premiere of a film titled “Little Mom Full of Color,” by a friend of mine, Katy Garton. The hour-long documentary follows the last year of the life of Katy’s mother, Susan, who was diagnosed with terminal melanoma as she weaves her way through the labyrinthine medical institutions that ultimately could not save her.
While I was nervous about seeing a film that recounts an extraordinarily difficult year in the lives of Katy and her family, I came away from watching the movie shakily energized. I did not expect to feel that way.
Katy’s film demonstrates what the best nonfiction storytelling is capable of achieving: By telling her mother’s story, she tackles the broader subjects of the ways in which Western society deals with death and treats the terminally ill. Few, if any relationships, are as intimate as the one between a mother and child. It wasn’t easy for Katy to bring her camera along on trips with her mother, Susan, to dialysis and to appointments with the one doctor willing to be straightforward about her chances of beating the diseases wearing down her body. Watching these scenes is as difficult as it is riveting.
But the movie isn’t just about one woman; it is about the ostracism Susan suffered in a society averse to acknowledging death or weakness or disease. An oncologist refused to meet with Katy’s mother once it grew apparent that she would not survive. She was asked to leave a restaurant because her appearance made other diners uncomfortable.
For Katy’s mother, an artist and wild dresser, this aesthetic rejection was particularly acute. Among the film’s most poignant scenes is one in which Katy’s mother is having her hair colored, and her delight in deciding what to choose, and being a beautiful woman. Katy zooms in on her mother’s face while the stylist shampoos her hair and massages her scalp; her expression is utter bliss.
“Little Mom” is not the kind of film I would ordinarily choose to see, but it is as funny as it is emotionally wrenching. It is the kind of work capable of fostering discussion and questions about institutions of our culture ranging from religion to health care to the family unit.
And at those moments when the scope of the subject becomes enormous, Katy brings it back to the mundane routines of family interaction. In another scene the entire family is seated on the floor in front of the camera. They joke, and then Susan moves to get up. Skinny arms and legs, she wobbles and reaches out for assistance, then rights herself and stands, looking fragile. But instead of walking away, she bends from the waist and picks up a heavy-looking load of dirty plates and silverware from the floor where everyone was eating. Their mother was stronger than she looked.
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