“Here One Day,” Jewish filmmaker Kathy Leichter’s documentary about her mother’s mental illness, and the ripple effects of her suicide on her family, begins with Leichter responding to her young son’s question about how his grandmother died.
When he asks if she died because she “got a high fever,” Leichter tells him, yes, that’s right; she got a high fever and died.
“But that’s actually not what happened to my mom,” Leichter admits to her audience.
It took Leichter a long time to come to grips with her mother’s death, but the many conflicting emotions that have engulfed her, her father and her brother in the wake of Nina Leichter’s 11-story leap from the family’s apartment window in 1995 are laid bare in the documentarian’s 2012 film.
The 76-minute film was screened on Feb. 22 at Rodef Shalom Congregation, presented by JFilm and ReelAbilities, with support from community partners including the Fine Foundation, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the Mindful Project and LEAD Pittsburgh.
Leichter has traveled around the country and in Europe to be on hand to answer questions following screenings of “Here One Day.” She was present at Rodef Shalom last week and also present at additional Pittsburgh screenings at UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh and at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh where the film was screened for Holocaust survivors. No stranger to Pittsburgh, Leichter lived here from 1991 to 1995, while she worked at WQED as an associate producer in its national programming department.
She was, in fact, working at WQED — right across the street from Rodef Shalom — when she got the phone call from her father in February 1995, that her mother had killed herself.
“The return here to this place, to me, is absolutely symbolic and meaningful and a pilgrimage of sorts,” she told the audience after the credits ended.
When her father called her with the tragic and unexpected news, she recalled, she simply said “no” and hung up the phone.
Although she knew her mother was dead, denial haunted her nonetheless as she grappled with a slue of unresolved feelings that may have contributed to her eventually moving back into her parents’ apartment.
In 2004, nine years after her mother’s suicide, Leichter began working on her film.
“Making the film began as a very personal quest,” she told the audience, “and now it’s incredibly public. But I wanted to put the suicide story on the big screen. These stories can be very validating to other people. I think any kind of art — maybe especially film — allows people to see another individual and say ‘that could be me.’”
“Here One Day” is a cautionary and a consciousness-raising tale about mental illness, an attempt to help eradicate the stigma associated with bipolar disorder and depression and to show those who are suffering that they are not alone.
But mostly, “Here One Day” is a tribute to Nina Leichter, the vivacious, creative, impressively intelligent wife of New York State Sen. Franz Leichter. Through old photographs, home movies and personal writings, we are given a portal into her accomplishments and her struggles, her love for her children and the troubles in her marriage. She is shown as a whole person — a mother, a wife, a scholar, an artist and an advocate for mental health — not just as a person suffering from the throes of manic depression.
Most fascinating, though, is hearing Nina’s intimate reflections in her own voice, through several hours of cassette audio recordings that her daughter discovered in a box in a closet once she moved back home.
“I was terrified to listen to the tapes,” Kathy Leichter said, and it took her 16 years to finally play them.
The filmmaker had a version of “Here One Day” completed in 2010 and had not even told her editor about the tapes.
“I saved it until the last minute,” she said in an interview with The Chronicle. “All of a sudden, I thought I had to bring in the tapes. I had an intern transcribe them. She was wearing headphones listening to them, and I looked over and she was bawling.”
Leichter took the headphones and heard her mother’s voice.
“Then it was like, ‘Hi, Mom!’” Leichter said. “She was right there. I was so happy to have those [tapes] and be almost in a conversation with her.”
People have connected with the film from a variety of perspectives: as a survivor of a loved one’s suicide; as someone struggling with mental illness; as a woman facing the challenge of raising a family while working outside the home, as did Nina.
“I strove to make a film with universal themes,” Leichter said. “The amount of connection people have made to the film moves me.”
In fact, several members of the audience at Rodef Shalom last week were moved to tears; two clinicians from the local mental health organization re: solve were on hand and “available for support in case something is triggered,” the audience was informed prior to the commencement of the film.
“The more we can get people talking about their own experiences, the less alone we feel,” Leichter said.
Kathleen Moss, executive director of LEAD (Leading Education & Awareness for Depression), a community initiative advocating for the recognition and acceptance of depression as a treatable medical condition, manned a table in the foyer prior to the film to provide information to attendees, as did other mental health advocacy organizations.
As Leichter said, part of the mission of the film is “stigma-busting,” agreed Moss.
“While I was at the information table, people wanted to talk about their experiences,” Moss said. “The evening gave people a space to connect around a common experience.”
Go to hereoneday.com to stream or download the film or to order the DVD.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.