Heroes in war and at home
Tom Brokaw special revisits Pearl Harbor; Oscar-winning
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Filmmaker Tracy Seretean repeats these words spoken by her friend, who died in December, with a catch in her throat. Clearly she respected and loved Ms. Dees, whom she said was "authentically good." Big Mama airs on Cinemax's Reel Life May 30 (7:30-8:15 p.m.), and there is no doubt that it deserves the Oscar it won in March.Skip to next paragraph
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Dees "exuded love," says Ms. Seretean about the African-American grandmother who fought to keep her nine-year-old grandchild, Walter, out of the foster-care system.
"You don't often meet people who are without guile - who are all about doing good even if it hurts them," Seretean says.
Deserted by his mother, Walter had been in the care of Dees for five years since the death of his father. Dees had promised her son that Walter would always have a home with her while she lived. But the Department of Children's and Family Services (DCFS) threatened to take Walter away from Dees because of her age.
When Dees experienced a mild heart attack, Walter acted up at first. And when he accidentally set the house afire, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital - a nightmare for both of them. DCFS determined that the child needed more supervision, so Dees found him a special school that helped him for a year. When his therapy was over, the child was placed in foster care.
Seretean draws us in with the dignity of her subject, and she makes us realize with the close-up of the child's hand in his grandmother's, or his face buried in his pillow when she leaves him, just how badly he needs her and how right she is to claim him.
What is most impressive about this documentary is the immense dignity and incredible strength of character of Big Mama (her affectionate nickname). It is her authentic faith that gets her through the toughest moments. In one scene she tells us she feels better after reading the Bible. And when she quotes from it, her faith and confidence arise out of the wisdom of her experience.
Seretean was attracted to the story partly because her own grandparents helped raise her when her parents traveled for their work. She read a story about Dees in the Los Angeles Times and called her up. Seretean had worked on Wall Street, and then as a radio producer, but she had never made a movie. So she took a summer course at the University of Southern California and made an 18-minute version of the film. "It was terrible," she says. But she tried again, taking a year to shoot. Then HBO sent her to work with one of its top-notch editors.
"It was scary," she says. "Documentary film is the hardest thing I've ever undertaken...."
There are 2 million children in this country who have no one but their grandparents, Seretean says. These grand persons aren't applauded for raising a generation of kids suffering from abandonment and neglect. "In most states, they don't even get the benefits that foster parents get. That leads to the question, 'Are we funding the dissolution of the family?' " Seretean asks.
An inspired familial love is seldom seen on television. Seretean's affection for both Walter and Big Mama and the message of the importance of one forlorn little boy make this film as moving as it is. "I thought Walter should have that unconditional love as long as possible," Seretean says, and then later, "Viola took the hard road in the service of what she thought was right. Always."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor