A Riveting Story Told in a Remarkable Kaleidoscopic Documentary Style by Director Richard Lui About the Effects of Mental Health Issues on American Families
How did this film come about? How did the idea originate? What inspired you?
Nine years ago, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Shortly after, I stepped back from my work as a cable news anchor [MSNBC], changing to work part time on weekends. I started to make a weekly commute from my work in New York and my family in San Francisco.
How long did it take to make the film?
The team filmed each of the three families over seven years. We made multiple trips back to each family’s hometown, and kept the same team together for the entire filming process. This allowed us to document how the family adapted to care for their loved one over time.
Why did you make this film? What does UNCONDITIONAL mean to you?
I wanted to shift the conversation about mental health and bring it into the mainstream. We all have hidden wounds of our own. When you bring that into a caregiving context – those hidden wounds become even more evident. In the film, you see the hidden wounds that are being cared for, like PTSD, cancer, and Alzheimer’s – all conditions you can’t see on the outside. But you also start to see the hidden wounds shared by the caregivers who are helping care for their family members.
How did the pandemic affect the production? How did it affect the families in the film?<
Since this was a seven-year filming process, we had the good fortune of having a lot already filmed. But we also knew that as a film about mental health, it was going to be important to show the pandemic’s effect from that perspective. We all had to deal with the isolation that the pandemic lockdowns brought – and that’s been the case for every American.The pandemic affected the families in different ways. One surprise is that two of the families got stronger because of COVID. For my family, it meant we couldn’t go inside my father’s care facility tosee him – it also caused more rifts between my siblings and I.
Did the film change from your original idea for the film as you were filming or in post?<
We started production on this film back in 2016. The conversation around mental health has changed dramatically since we started. It hasmoved into the mainstream. Celebrities like Olympic Gold Medalist Laurie Hernandez (also an UNCONDITIONAL Executive Producer) and herUSA Gymnastics teammate Simone Biles have shared their experiences publicly. I think that’s served to strengthen this film – there’s already an understanding of what mental health means now. Hopefully with UNCONDITIONAL, we can help open up new conversations.
What were the challenges in making this film?
The biggest challenge we faced was trying to show the hidden wounds on screen. You can’t see these hidden wounds – like Alzheimer’s or PTSD. Our efforts to show them involved every part of the production team. On set, we tried to capture their sound – like the heavy breathing of a panic attack, and their look – using dutch angles, for example, to show distress.
We worked with an animation team to show what these afflictions were doing inside the body. On the animation showing traumatic brain injury, for example, we reached out to researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center to make sure what we were showing was scientifically accurate. Our editors intercut “flashbacks” into the scenes documenting PTSD, complemented by the “ringing” sounds of battlefield explosions.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
The film is a reason to start talking about mental health with your loved ones. It’s more important than ever. I want audiences to realize that no matter where you’re from, you can be a part of this conversation. That it is okay to say you’re not sure if you’re okay.
How were Diversity and Inclusion efforts a part of the project?
Diversity and inclusion remained part of the film’s DNA in front and behind the camera. I wanted to stay true to this both with the families that I chose and my crew.
Half of the $1.5M production was made with in-kind or pro bono contributions by industry professionals, established film contractors, animation groups, and national organizations. These pro bono in-kind commitments represent the broad interest in this film and the unprecedented team that was gathered to produce it.
Where do you find inspiration or who/what has influenced you as a filmmaker?
My parents never thought there was a limit to good, hard work. To always try. And fail. And try again. And again. We have produced this film in strange ways, out of the typical process. But there were certain limitations given my daytime job and sick father that meant nothing was going to be typical. I am inspired by the team who believed in the importance of this journey. Who gave of themselves, their time, their brains, and most of all their hearts.
Reviewer Gregg W. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com