It is, indeed, a rare choice for any documentarian, whether making a feature-length film or a shot, to focus so exclusively on the words and wisdom of its core subject in a film such as Paul Nethercott's Grateful.
Set for its world premiere at the Indy Shorts International Film Festival, the latest creation from those outstanding folks at Indy's acclaimed Heartland International Film Festival, Grateful centers around the life experiences of Jenni Berebitsky, a vibrant woman whose diagnosis with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 33 led doctors to predict her death within a matter of months.
Nine years later, Jenni Berebitsky is still here.
While a doc like Grateful always runs the risk of becoming yet another in the long line of "Disease of the Week" flicks, Nethercott's intelligent, sensitive direction focuses less on the disease and more on the person whose life, according to her own words, has been "saved" by ALS.
For a good majority of Grateful's 15-minute running time, Nethercott focuses his lens exclusively on Berebitsky, whose vibrancy is palpable even as ALS has dramatically impacted her physical abilities and speech. Berebitsky was a mere 2 1/2 years into her marriage and the mother of a 15-month old son when she was diagnosed with ALS, which is known more widely as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Neither buying into her limited life expectancy nor any sort of disabling labels, Berebitsky quickly set about to continue living a meaningful life from setting up her own naturopathic medicine clinic where Dr. Berebitsky saw patients for three years to completely two triathlons and authoring the book ALS Saved My Life ... until it didn't.
Grateful does a splendid job of capturing Berebitsky's spirit and refreshing authenticity. She's both realistic about her physical limitations and how much they absolutely suck and a relentless optimist whose purpose is seemingly found in the simple mantra "To live a normal life is ordinary. I live an extraordinary life. There is beauty and humor everywhere."
Despite its unabashed celebration of the human spirit, Grateful is, rather gratefully, not a film filled with greeting card sentiments. There's a thread of realism throughout Grateful, a realism that seems to be enveloped by the immensely loving circle of family and friends who surround Berebitsky on a regular basis. Comprised largely of an interview with Berebitsky along with an abundance of supporting photographs and videos, Grateful feels somewhat similar in tone to Brian Malone's extraordinary doc Reengineering Sam that played at Heartland a couple years ago.
Grateful will be screening twice during Indy Shorts as part of the Indiana Spotlight 2 Collection - Thursday, July 26th at 5pm and Sunday, July 29th at 7:45pm. Both screenings will be inside The Toby at Newfields, a screen that recently received a rather extraordinary update in a partnership between Heartland and Newfields.
For more information on Indy Shorts, visit the Indy Shorts website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic