Lucia Small 1963-2022

Farewell to a beloved Boston filmmaker whose work deserves a wider audience.

Lucia Small 1963-2022
Photo credit: The DocYard

The last time I saw Lucia Small was in May, at a festival screening of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” at the Coolidge Corner Cinema. I hadn’t seen her in a year or so and was shocked by how gaunt and pale she seemed – a collection of twigs in the shape of a person waiting patiently for a movie to begin. I inquired after her health, and she said, “Oh, you didn’t know. I have pancreatic cancer.” She could have just said, “I have cancer,” or “I’m sick,” but the specificity was Lucia’s way of telling me, with gentle finality, “I’m going to die soon.” I don’t know what emotional journey she had to take to get to that island of calm, or whether that island was a temporary stopover in a larger struggle. I do know that Lucia would have made a movie about it if she could.

She died this past Saturday, at 58; film critic Peter Keough has eulogized her too-short life and career in eloquent detail in the local online journal Arts Fuse. The Boston film community is a small one, the Boston documentary film scene smaller still, yet in a field of internationally known heavyweights like Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, and Ross McElwee, Small held her own with assurance and distinction. The four non-fiction features she made after leaving an early stint producing for public radio and TV haven’t been as widely seen as they could and should be, but they’re profoundly human and suffused with their maker’s curiosity and wit. Above all, they’re torn between conviction and doubt about the whole business of filming life as we know it. Small’s movies are about more than their subjects; they’re about what it means to pick up a camera and limit the world to a frame – what a person’s obligations are to that frame and the people in it, how to know when documentation has become exploitation. In Small’s hand, a movie camera was a loaded gun handled with care – and turned as often on herself, because she needed to know what that felt like.

Her debut as a non-fiction filmmaker was 2002’s wonderfully spiky, “My Father, The Genius, a title meant to be read both straight and with a long-suffering roll of the eyes. Small’s father, Glen Small, was a visionary architect and a master of self-sabotage, much-married and bitter about his successful rivals; the movie’s as much about getting to know this difficult creature as it is about his work. How is the relationship between filmmaker and subject complicated by the fact that they’re daughter and father? “My Father, The Genius” probes the invisible strings connecting the two with great patience and humor, beneath which lay the compassion that was Small’s true calling card.

In “The Axe in the Attic” (2008), Small teamed up with Ed Pincus, a legend of documentary filmmaking and a personal mentor, to travel down to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Reviewing the film in the Globe, I wrote, “As is the current fashion, ‘The Axe in the Attic’ turns its camera on its own makers, which at first seems the height of self-absorption. Who cares about a pair of well-meaning Yankees in the face of such upheaval? … As ‘Axe’ unreels, though, we begin to understand: The film’s about rediscovering our common humanity — pushing through the flat screen of TV footage to connect with the Katrina victims as individuals. Some of the moral dilemmas the filmmakers face are eerie, micro-size versions of the greater national response. Should Small give money to her subjects? Is Pincus’s objective stance — he feels a documentarian should never get involved — a heartless pose? What do we owe people, anyway, and why? Because they’re fellow Americans? Because they’re humans? … To be helped, you need to be seen and heard. ‘The Axe in the Attic’ watches and listens and wonders if that’s remotely enough.”

In 2015’s “One Cut, One Life,” the hurricane turned personal: Ed Pincus was dying of leukemia, and Small had recently lost two close friends to violent deaths. The movie documents Pincus’s final days and Small’s grappling with loss, and the clarity and humanity of the filmmaking are unexpected balms. The sand in the movie’s gears is Pincus’s wife Jane (herself a figure of renown as one of the co-authors of the groundbreaking women’s health book “Our Bodies, Our Selves”), who stubbornly defends the notion of undocumented reality, of not putting a frame around experience. In a world of TikTok influencers and endless self-promotion, Jane Pincus’s position is more relevant than ever, and Small puts it out there for us all to hash out. “[The movie’s] a thing of lovely imperfections,” I wrote in the Globe in 2015, “profound and banal, self-absorbed and insightful, weighted with grief and buoyed by resilience. In short, as messy and precious as life itself.”

“One Cut, One Life” is one of the few of Small’s films that’s readily available for streaming, on the public-library/university-based platform Kanopy. Her latest and last work, “Girl Talk,” was part of this spring’s Independent Film Festival of Boston lineup and aired recently on Boston’s WGBH; it’s available for free streaming through the end of November and to PBS Passport members for some time going forward. Focusing on five female students on the debate team at Newton South High School in Newton, MA, “Girl Talk” is rare for Small in that it’s less self-reflexive about the act of filmmaking and more focused on young women fighting against the current of an activity and a society weighted heavily in favor of young men, defining and toughening themselves as they go. Circumspect about the past and highly uncertain about the present, Lucia found in her five final subjects an embattled hope for the future. I’d like to think the serenity I sensed in our last brief meeting may have had something to do with that. By May, “Girl Talk” was part of the IFFBoston festival slate and had already been scheduled for WGBH. The edit was locked, the work was done. The work was good. It was time to rest.

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