The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY
Interview: Rob DeStefano


When talking about his father, one of the children says, “He loved us a lot, but he still committed suicide, so that’s very confusing.” Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary is challenging to watch without shedding a tear, but I can only imagine how it is for a child to cope with a family member’s death and even confess it to a camera. ONE LAST HUG is approximately thirty-five minutes long, and in that short span, Brodsky takes us through an intimate three days at Camp Erin, one of forty-one free bereavement camps for youth. For someone who was unaware of these programs, the documentary gives a glance into the structure of the seventy-two hours; more importantly though, it reminds us how delicate and amorphous a child’s world is. The filmmaker tells this story with simplicity and grace; she doesn’t shy away from the children’s grief, yet she knows when to bring about repose. Brodsky’s previous credits include an Academy Award nomination for her non-fiction short The Final Inch (2009) and the Sundance Audience Award for her feature length documentary Hear and Now (2007). To add to her success, ONE LAST HUG deservedly received the HIFF 2013 Audience Award for Best Short Documentary. It was our pleasure to meet with this prestigious storyteller and discuss her work.

Documentary: ONE LAST HUG (…and a few smooches): Three Days at Grief Camp
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Network: HBO Documentary Films
Premiere: 2014

Inflatable Ferret: What led you to direct ONE LAST HUG?

Irene Taylor Brodsky: My first documentary I made back in the early nineties for UNICEF – I was living in Nepal at the time, and I made it about deaf children living in the Himalayas. My first theatrically released documentary was in 2007 called Hear and Now. It premiered at Sundance, and it won the Audience Award there. I was very fortunate with my first feature length to get some recognition. It opened a lot of doors for me to continue making films. I have a long history of making television documentaries before I made that theatrical film.

IF: What sparked your interest in grief camp? Do you have a personal connection to these camps?

ITB: I don’t. One of the producers of the film, Greg DeHart, lost a parent as a child. He had been developing a relationship with a place called Camp Erin in Malibu, California. It was really poignant for him because when he was a child there was never anything like this. In fact, no one really talked about his father’s death. I think that he was really taken with the whole premise that this camp even existed. There are forty-one of them around the country, so we chose one, the one he had developed this relationship with, and we focused on kids here, between the ages of six and eighteen.

IF: As a filmmaker, how did you decide that you wanted to narrow your scope and focus on just one of these camps in particular?

ITB: I think it’s more of a storytelling style. I don’t really consider myself an issue-based filmmaker, even though this film is about children’s grief. It’s really about these four kids we focus on. I’m more of a character driven documentary filmmaker, and I think that if we had gone to too many camps, it would have spread the character texture too thin.

IF: The recent doc Stories We Tell has been gaining a lot of attention this year. [ITB: It’s my favorite film of the year!] She created such an interesting way of articulating that story. Do you find there’s an artistic approach you lean towards in conveying non-fiction?

ITB: I think each of my films is a little different. I would say that I don’t go for the same style with each one. I let the style come out of the subject and the character themselves, more organically. For example, with these kids, I knew it was important that we sit them down in a chair and do a nice, quiet, private interview with them, because you’re not going to get information out of kids when they are around twenty others. You need to sit them down. Hear and Now was a film that was shot entirely vérité. I would just follow these characters (they were my parents actually) around with a camera because I could – because I had that kind of access to them.


IF: Is the vérité approach ever disconcerting? Having to develop your project on the fly.

ITB: I like vérité. It’s a little tougher, but I think that you see people in their daily routine and their daily life.

IF: Do you think that not having a personal connection with Camp Erin affects the authenticity of your story?

ITB: I don’t think you need to have a personal connection to these subjects in the films you make. I think there is a certain freshness and inquisitiveness that you bring to the whole subject that is very refreshing. I don’t have any jaded preconceptions. I don’t have my own demons in the closet about this. I don’t have my own sorrows about this. I have sorrows for other people and many people in my life who have experienced this when they were children. So I am deeply, deeply concerned about them and concerned about the issue, but I think that coming to it as someone who had not lost her parents, I could look at it a little bit dispassionately and yet compassionately.

IF: I hear you have a story about ex-convicts in the works?

ITB: I’ve been working on a film for the last three years called Four Walls Around Me. It’s a feature length documentary following several ex-cons after they get out of prison – we follow their lives for a couple of years.

IF: Is that a vérité approach?

ITB: Definitely. The issue of that film is recidivism, and the very high rate (70%) of men who go back to prison within three years. Why does that happen? I’m really putting a personal face on it, and that’s why the film is taking so long. It’s important that time passes, and we let these men live their lives, as opposed to taking just one little snapshot.

IF: Do you ever feel too invasive when working on a project like this?

ITB: Sure. There’s always that concern that you’re going to overstep your bounds. When I start making these films, if I’m going to do that kind of filming, I really sit down and have many conversations with these people about how we’re going to do this. It’s not a contract. It’s not a formal arrangement. I don’t pay them. But it’s like a covenant we have in that we understand there can be parameters, there can be boundaries, but I also need to be allowed in. And if I can’t be, I need to find a different subject. A lot of it is based on trust.

Be sure to check out this touching documentary ONE LAST HUG (…and a few smooches): Three Days at Grief Camp on HBO this Spring!

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