Hot Docs 2020 Review: A Daughter Uncovers What Her Mother Left Behind in Judith Helfand’s “Love and Stuff”

“Please don’t get too attached to stuff. It accumulates,” Florence Helfand is said to have told her daughter Judith when she and her husband were moving out of a house in Long Island to share an apartment in the city. These words of wisdom reverberate throughout “Love and Stuff,” though Judith is reluctant to accept them in the wake of Florence’s death and in an expansion of her Op-Docs short of the same name that had the filmmaker attempting to clean out her mother’s place in 2014, the boxes of old skirts and tiny elephants still remain in her apartment (with some moved to a storage locker), unable to be parted with when “the momishness of them” is still too strong well after they’ve lost any value other than sentimental.

Naturally, “Love and Stuff” is comprised of parts both new and old, with Helfand not only revisiting her 2014 short, but her 1997 film “A Healthy Baby Girl,” in which she documented her battle with cervical cancer at 25 that could be traced back to her mother’s use of diethylstilbestrol (DES) during her pregnancy and now appears to in retrospect as if it was made to provide an excuse for Helfand to keep in close contact with a camera when they could’ve grown distant due to the guilt Florence felt for simply following the advice of doctors. “Love and Stuff” would seem to fulfill a similar purpose now that Florence has passed on, filled with warm recollections and footage that vividly preserve her memory, but co-directed by David Cohen and smartly edited by him and Marina Katz, the film never feels beholden to the past as much as Helfand might at times on screen, instead conveying how life goes on and finds the filmmaker at the peculiar crossroads of having this history weigh on her as she starts on the path of becoming a new mother herself.

Although Helfand is unable to carry a baby to term following her bout with cancer, she looks into adoption before her mother takes ill and as anyone familiar with the process knows, the timing can rarely be planned for, leaving the filmmaker uncertain whether she can take on the responsibility of caring for a child at the same time she’s tending to her mother as her health worsens. While the practical dilemma is interesting enough, the emotional one is truly provocative when Helfand has to consider how she can move forward into motherhood once her own is no longer there to offer counsel and as a 50-year-old with weight issues, how she has to take measures now to avoid passing down such heartbreak to the child she adopts.

Anyone familiar with Helfand from rigorous activist docs such as “Blue Vinyl” and “Cooked” will know that she has a way of disarming audiences with her wry narration and inviting screen presence that doesn’t detract from the gravity of the subject matter, and with this most personal of films, she pulls no punches. Having a mischievous score from Paul Brill to accompany her own curiosity about how things will play out in uncertain times, Helfand may start out investigating how we can dwell too much on the past, but “Love and Stuff” gradually evolves into a celebration of the breadcrumbs we leave behind for future generations, illustrating how the meaning of history can sometimes only make itself known at unexpected moments as it finds a home itself for footage collected over the years that may have previously had no obvious place to reside. Even if Helfand couldn’t possibly know now about how her child will process her death or in what way she can prepare her for it, in making a film to keep the memories alive of her own mother, she gives her child something precious to remember her by as well.

“Love and Stuff” will next screen at DOC NYC, available to stream nationwide from November 11th through 19th.

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