The AFI DOCS Interview: CARE Director Deirdre Fishel – American Film Institute

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The AFI DOCS Interview: CARE Director Deirdre Fishel

Millions of elderly Americans depend on compassionate caregivers to provide the support they need to age in place. Every day, these health care workers offer love and kindness to the elderly, but often don’t earn enough to keep a roof over their own heads. With compelling stories of caregivers and those in need, CARE opens our eyes to the beautiful yet fragile human infrastructure that supports an increasingly aging America.

AFI spoke with CARE director Deirdre Fishel ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.

What led you to documentary filmmaking? 

I was on a year off from Brown University when the screening of a slideshow on gentrification in Cincinnati changed my life. I got a crash course in class in America and was so upset about the fate of black and Appalachian residents losing their homes that I moved to Cincinnati to renovate low-income housing. Once there, I found the filmmaker Tony Heriza to tell him how moved I was by his project and he encouraged me to make films of my own. I’ve never looked back. We remained friends and colleagues and Tony is the producer of CARE.

What drew you to tell this story? 

I have long had an interest in the lives of older Americans. In 1994, I directed STILL DOING IT, an intimate look at the amazing, sensual lives of vibrant women over 65. My mother, at 73, was a character in that film. A decade later, however, she was growing frail. It was scary to think of her continuing to live alone, but she was adamant about aging in her own home.

My sister and I — both working parents — knew that as much as we love her, at some point, we’d have to get help. But as we began to investigate the world of paid home care, we were shocked by what we found: a largely unregulated system, confusing to navigate and totally uncovered by Medicare. To make matters worse, care workers were making poverty wages. With our elder population soaring, I assumed someone had to be making a film about this, but when I realized they weren’t, I started research right away. When I found about the work of Ai-jen Poo and the organization she co-directs, Caring Across Generations, I called her to talk about the idea of a film. Her enthusiasm was all I needed to jump in with two feet.

What was a particular challenge of making CARE?

An early obstacle was getting the recipients of home care to open their lives to us. We live in a society where your worth is measured in productivity and people feel ashamed when they need care. A later obstacle was figuring out how to put together what might seem like disparate stories of workers and elders to show the undeniable connection between their fates. With a lot of characters, it was an editing challenge. But, producer Tony and I feel strongly that the film we have now reveals the reality that this is not a private issue, but a systemic one and that the only way to get quality care is by making these quality jobs.

What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?

In following the workers and elders in CARE for two years, I was deeply moved by the beauty of hands-on care and the profound connections that care work engenders. I wanted to make a film that would tell the story of these intimate relationships and reveal how both workers and clients are struggling in an inadequate care system. I hope the film will encourage audiences to wrestle with one of the biggest questions of our time: “How are we going to care for our elders and the workers who let them live with dignity?”

Why is Washington, DC, an important location in which to screen your film?

Families all over the U.S. are struggling to get and pay for the elder care they need. Despite poverty wages, care is one of the fastest growing occupations in the country. Nonetheless, care is seen as a private issue. One of the key goals of the film is to make it clear that when this many people are affected, this has to be part of a public agenda. With our elder population doubling by 2040 and our system totally unprepared, we are, in fact, headed into a national care crisis. Care is a national public policy issue, which makes DC an incredibly valuable place for CARE to screen.

What documentaries inspire you?

There are so many. But, films that come to mind that really wowed me are TITICUT FOLLIES, LOVE AND DIANE, EVERY MOTHER’S SON and CARTEL LAND. What I love about these films is the way that unfolding intimate, personal stories ultimately reveals systems that are not working and that need to be seen and changed.

CARE plays AFI DOCS on Thursday, June 23 at 3:45 p.m., and Sunday, June 26 at 10:30 a.m. Buy tickets here.

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