O mother, where are you? The Portland film offers a meditation on family loss and trauma
The opening scene of the documentary film ”Sam Now” features the film’s main character, Sam Harkness, in a multitude of storylines.
He battles an inflatable whale, pretends to fly with cardboard wings, and battles homemade robots in a blue superhero mask. These home movie clips are shot by Sam’s half-brother, Portland filmmaker Reed Harkness, who directed “Sam Now.” This is the form that the rest of this deeply personal film will take: an on-screen brother, playing the drama; the other behind the camera, documenting and guiding us through the narrative. But while these opening images are whimsical and playful, they contrast with the angst at the heart of “Sam now.”
In January 2000, without warning, Sam’s mother, Jois, suddenly disappeared.
“Everyone thought she would come back, but she didn’t come back,” says Reed Harkness in the film. “She didn’t call or write either. It stayed like that for years, and I was really worried about my brother. No one was doing anything or even talking about it.
This sudden loss is the true beginning of “Sam Now”, a story that spans more than two decades. The film addresses how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation – and the stories we tell ourselves about why our families are the way they are.
The Sam Movies
Reed Harkness, who was eight years older than his brother, filmed five so-called “Sam Films” as the two grew up. “Sam was always so charismatic,” he said. “He just had this thing, where if you turned the camera on him, he would become even more alive and do something fun and interesting.”
After Sam’s mother suddenly disappeared, an unspoken hurt began to creep into the family. Reed Harkness noticed the impact of the loss on his brother and that no one felt comfortable talking about the disappearance. He filmed interviews with Sam about the loss, but the teenager kept a low profile.
“We started off doing these playful fictional movies, and then there’s this elephant in the room,” said Reed Harkness, “this big family secret.”
“I didn’t really have a way to talk to Sam about these things. Young Sam, he doesn’t really connect with his emotions, and for good reason. He had to somehow learn to take cover. So our conversations are about music. Our conversations are about movies. Our conversations aren’t really about the heaviness of likes, abandonment, and grief.
The great adventure
In the film, after two and a half years, Reed Harkness realizes that he might be able to help his brother come to terms with the disappearance by creating a new project. He pitches his brother on a new movie, using Sam’s superhero alter-ego: The Blue Panther finds his mother.
They had received a tip that Jois might have moved to Southern California and started a new life, with a new family. The film becomes the vehicle for the two to explore their loss.
“Some of it was always something that might never come out of it,” Reed Harkness said. “We could just go on a long road trip and nothing ever happens.”
As they discuss the shoot, they laugh as they imagine the possibilities. “I’ll go, and you spin the car,” Sam plans. ‘idea.
To their surprise, however, the plan works.
In one scene, Sam stands on a Southern California beach with a cell phone in his hand. He seems amused by the absurdity of this long-term attempt to find his mother, with whom he has not spoken for three years.
“Hello, can I speak with Jois?” he asks calmly. “…Mom??? Hi!! It’s Sam! Hey, me and Reed are in California! We decided to come get you, or find you. Just because we wanted to go to adventure !
After years of imagining where Jois had gone, the brothers discover that she is alive and well, with a new partner, living in southern Oregon.
Skeletons in the closet
The loss of a loved one is overwhelming, but it also brings clarity: what we once had is now gone.
But what happens when you rediscover that same person? How to reconcile after being abandoned? This becomes the central question of “Sam Now”.
“Early on, at the start of the movie, I basically act like a detective and try to interview my family to find out where Jois might be,” Reed Harkness said. “As the film develops, I realize there are some burning questions I need answers to. And that involves finding those skeletons in the closet.
After reconnecting with Jois, Reed Harkness continued to document her family’s attempts to move forward over the next decade. There are tearful reunions, tense conversations and a lot of soul-searching.
“Throughout 25 years of filmmaking, there’s been all kinds of things happening in our family,” Reed Harkness said, “and different times when it wasn’t right to film, and different times when it was all quite right to film.”
The project propelled him into the role of family history chronicler.
“The weirdest part of it all isn’t the experience of having a camera and inserting yourself into family situations,” he said, “but the experience of holding the story of everyone, to be the recipient of everyone’s story within my family and to hold it until now.”
Start the conversation
Learn more about Jois’ own tragic story, “Sam Now” paints a portrait of how the cycle of trauma can shift between generations.
“I can see the chain,” said Reed Harkness. “I can see how it’s a cyclical thing where Jois felt abandoned. Sam feels abandoned. Sam wants to try to break this cycle.
The film doesn’t resolve with a Hollywood storybook ending; it’s a real story of a real family, after all. But Reed Harkness lights up when asked how his brother is doing today. Sam is a social worker in Seattle, working to help others who have grown up in difficult situations.
“He understands a lot about what happened to him and he tries to help others,” said Reed Harkness. “But at the same time, he also understands that there’s no quick fix, there’s no clean way to fix things.”
After premiering at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, “Sam Now” has toured the festival circuit and will screen in Portland on August 5. PBS audiences will be introduced to the film next spring, as part of the Independent Lens series.
But for Reed Harkness, the film’s greatest legacy is the conversations he has seen spark among audience members about the secrets that exist within all of our families and the difference we can all make by having the courage to launch a difficult conversation.
“I wouldn’t call it a call to action, but it presents the idea that, hey – maybe there’s someone you want to talk to right now,” he said. declared. “Why not? You know, why not?
Sam Now screens Friday, August 5 at 7 p.m. on Portland Museum of Art Whitsell Auditorium