In 1988, photographer and filmmaker David Binder began documenting Gail Farrow’s life and her family’s process of coming to terms with her imminent death. As you can see in the article below, the photographs are powerful and “Calling My Children” proved to honor and extend Gail Farrow’s care for the family she left behind. Ten years later, Binder returned for a photoessay update on the family in 1998, and a filmed one in 2009. Now, he is preparing a fourth installment and he needs your help. Check out his Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the film production of this latest installment, a feature-length documentary. There are a few weeks left to help out; June 6, 2014 is the close date. Click here to find out more about this important project and donate via Kickstarter here.
Filmmaker & photographer David Binder charts Gail Farrow’s legacy to her family
by V. Anderson
I am writing to you now because I am afraid I won’t be alive to see you all grow into fine young men.” Gail Farrow’s words, in letters to her sons—Ronald, Jr., Frank, Kenny, and Benny—dictated to a nurse from her hospital bed, are the driving force of the film, Calling My Children. Starting with his 1988 photo essay, director David Binder weaves the extraordinary photographs he took of Gail and her family into a narrative spine that links together interviews with each of her sons and Ronald Watson, their father. In 2008, twenty years after Gail’s death, the family has become disparate elements united by a deep, but distant bond. She contracted HIV from a blood transfusion while being treated for cancer and died at the age of twenty-seven, but what makes Gail special is what makes her universal: her love and dedication to her sons.
I recently spoke to David Binder, award-winning photojournalist turned award-winning filmmaker, about the crushing but hopeful story behind his first film.
V. Anderson: The film is almost more about being a parent than AIDS. Gail, tested by illness, proved to be a good one. Ronald, for a while, failed.
David Binder: And how awesome of Ronald to know that, right? There are a lot of men, particularly, who don’t know that about themselves. I give him a lot of credit for knowing his failures. He could have failed and disappointed his children and not recognized it, but he’s grown a lot.
Having spent all of that time with the family, especially during Gail’s passing, you must’ve become very close.
I have been one of the more consistent people in their lives, strangely enough. I can imagine that this has been Gail’s intention all along, and it was the bargain that she and I had. I was looking for subject matter to help make relevant the experience of AIDS, and her interest was in leaving something for her children. She was sharp as a whip, and from that first meeting she understood that I would be the vehicle to help her leave something for her children. The children treasure the photographs. In the film, Frank says, “All I really got is pictures. So, I hold onto the pictures, and that brings a sense of reality.”
When you came back to do the follow-ups, were you a reminder to the family of that difficult time in their lives?
I was so self-conscious that I was not a happy memory to the kids.
Did that influence your approach to the film?
I imagined the film and designed it to be a manageable production, where I talked with each of them and allowed that to be the framework for the film. I wanted it to still maintain the sense of first person, from their point of view, and not have anything to do with me.
Why did you choose to film each person alone (with the exception of the one scene with Ronald and Benny)?
It is an accurate representation of how the family was living; they were all on their own. What I think comes through in the film is that they are all bonded, despite not being in each others’ company.
You could’ve done the follow-up with a series of still photographs, like you did in the past. Why did you choose film?
In the very beginning, Ronald says that his sons “don’t know how to let it go, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this tape.” It’s an opportunity for
Ronald to tell his story, and then the kids can speak for themselves. There are a lot of opportunities for people from various points of view and at various stages in their lives to connect with the film. Somebody can connect with Frank and the burdens of the world that are on him. He’s the caretaker of the entire family. Somebody can connect with Ronald, in his shortcomings. Some people can connect with Gail as the strong woman. That’s the intent of it.
The falling apart of the family after Gail’s death seems as though it had so little to do with economics and so much to do with each person feeling totally alone. Frank appears to be the one person who could keep it together. Why do you think he was able to do that?
Frank was five years-old when his mother was sick and dying. He took care of her every day. Ronald, Jr., was seven and was in school. The father was at work, and the twins were two years-old. Frank…had this connection with her that was unique. He developed his character and his strength through that, and [in the film] we see him talking about being the caretaker even today.
The time of the initial reading of the letters that Gail wrote is disputed in the family. Ronald thinks that everybody read them, and some of the sons don’t remember reading them at all.
I can explain what I understand to be the truth of the letters. Frank wasn’t talking to his dad for a couple years. [During filming] I hand [Frank] the letter, and I’m absolutely shocked by what transpires. [After the film was completed] Ronald came over, and he sees Frank’s response. He sits up on the edge of the couch, and he says, “Oh, that’s why Frank hates me.” In the way that Ronald is challenged perhaps to talk to his children, he can talk to them in this film, and maybe in a way that he couldn’t hear them, he could hear them in the film.”
One of my favorite photographs is the Christmas one, where Ronald is looking at It’s a Wonderful Life playing on the TV. Which one is yours?
Impossible. But I’ll tell you what it is right now. I have a coffee table photo book mock-up, and we designed what I refer to as the headshot page. It is cropped images from 1988, 1998, and 2008 of the father and each of the sons. It’s not fair to even call it a photo, but it’s a representation of them through time. I love that most of all right now.
Why is that?
Someone with AIDS is a human being, and they have a family and they have a story. The story of Gail and her family is the story of
illness, and loss, and longing, which is a universal, timeless story within the modern context of AIDS.
Will you do another follow-up in 2018?
It’s really up to them. I said [to Frank], “We’re getting close to maybe doing the next update,” and he said, “Yeah, you know, you should really be in the next one.” So, from what I said before about not wanting to be a part of it at all, I can think about it now, if he thinks it would be a good thing.
If the film has become a vehicle for them to speak to each other, you certainly have become a part of the story.
[Benny’s girlfriend gave birth to a son], and he calls me: “Hey Dave. We’re going to leave the hospital tomorrow, would you mind coming over and taking a picture?” I grabbed my gear and drove over to the hospital. They’re in the same hospital that his mother was in, and I go up and make my pictures. [Benny] walked me out of the hospital. We come out the same entrance that his mother would come in and out of all the time, and—that picture of Gail holding the flowers, those arches—and he points over and he says, “That’s where the picture of mom was,” and I said, “What do you think about that?” The young man just had a son, and he says, “I think about my son in twenty years.”
Who is this film for?
Everyone. It’s challenging for me when I do pitches. As soon as there’s mention of AIDS, there is a preconception about what the story is, and people believe they know what it’s going to be. But after they see the film, people say, “I did not see that coming,” and that’s what it’s supposed to be. If we know things, we know things, so what’s the point?
It’s extremely hard to get people interested in stories that they think they already know all about. How have people reacted to the screenings so far?
[At the 2012 International AIDS Conference] in D.C., there were some quite wonderful moments when people met Frank—starstruck isn’t quite it, but very
emotionally connected to him. [A woman] came over ten seconds after [Frank] left, and I said, “Oh, you just missed Frankie,” and her face went white. I said, “They’re headed for the elevator,” and she bolted. My phone rang and it was Frank, who said, “This woman ran over, she was waving. When she got over, she looked at me and couldn’t say anything. She just started crying.”
How does Frank deal with that type of attention?
He’s sincerely moved by how people are connected to what he says about his mother; it’s all about his mother to him. It is Frank deferring attention: they’re not moved by him, they’re moved by his mother. It’s so perfectly Frank.
For information about the film and photography series, log on to www.callingmychildren.com.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.