In 2015, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Duckworth was awarded the Prix Albert-Tessier, Quebec's highest cinematic honor. Having been centrally involved in the making of nearly 150 films, Duckworth has devoted a good majority of his cinematic efforts to social activism and being aware of and doing something about the world around him.
However, a few years ago it all stopped. Duckworth's wife of nearly fifth years, acclaimed visual artist Audrey Schirmer, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and Duckworth made the conscious decision to slow down life around him and to dedicate himself to her care. Schirmer passed away in 2019 and the now 88-year-old Duckworth finds himself front-and center of Dear Audrey, a feature doc by Jeremiah Hayes that has already won prizes at Phoenix Film Festival (Best Film - Dr. Sydney K. Shapiro Humanitarian Award and Best Documentary - World Cinema), Montreal International Documentary Festival (People's Choice Award - Best Documentary), and Festival Cinéma du Monde de Sherbrooke (Best Feature Doc). The film is screening this week at my own hometown's Indy Film Fest.
The word "poignant" is criminally over-utilized by film journalists. I'm just as guilty, however, Dear Audrey is a film for which the word "poignant" was practically made. Hayes poignantly and respectfully, and I might add with tremendous dignity for Audrey, chronicles Duckworth's struggles in caring for Audrey and their now adult daughter with autism. It's the kind of story for which Duckworth himself was known, a sort of observational endeavor filled with matter-of-fact truths and endearingly vivid and humane imagery. We learn much about Duckworth here, though nearly anyone who has worked with him will tell you he tends to keep to himself. We're introduced to him as he jogs around the neighborhood surrounding his home before he returns home to Audrey - it's never completely obvious if Audrey realizes who he is, yet it's always completely obvious that there's unspoken connectors communicating much love even when the language fails. Duckworth has made it clear that he made this film for Audrey, a way to keep her name alive and a way for her to be remembered. It's that kind of quiet love that radiates throughout Dear Audrey, a film that I can easily say is one of Indy Film Fest's absolute highlights in what is a very strong year for the fest's documentaries.
I'm hesitant to even say that Dear Audrey is about Duckworth's caring for her. While that is certainly true, the film itself even more importantly lays witness to their journey together and sheds light on Alzheimer's through the very seldom seen lenses of tenderness, wonder, connection, and dignity. Dear Audrey is for the most part devoid of anything resembling histrionics, there's a subtle language spoken between these two adults who've spent 40 years of their lives together and it doesn't even require words to be clearly spoken.
Duckworth had worked with Hayes on previous projects, however, it's noted that he originally declined the idea for this film. Hayes kept his crew small for his shoots in the home, shooting 1-2 times monthly over the course of four years and always being careful to not disrupt their routines. Hayes has noted that he learned much more about Martin Duckworth making this film than he'd ever learned while working with him on other projects.
To his credit, Hayes views Martin Duckworth warts and all. It seems as though Duckworth himself prefers it this way. There's recollections about his early years dealing with Jacqueline's autism, for example, and how he'd often become impatient with her. It's clear that these memories bother him to these days.
Dear Audrey is the kind of film that Indy Film Fest audiences will love. Hoosier audiences historically resonate with these simple, emotionally honest stories that inspire not by manipulation but by human beings fumbling their way toward something beautiful even when life gets really, really challenging. As a lifelong Hoosier, I expect this film to be wildly embraced by festival audiences.
While it would seem that Dear Audrey is about Alzheimer's Disease, by the end of Dear Audrey it's apparent that this is a documentary about remarkable love that endures through all the challenges that Alzheimer's can present and several traumas that Duckworth himself has experienced over the years. This is a beautiful film about beautiful people and it's definitely one of Indy Film Fest's must-see motion pictures.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic