By Jana Monji
Veteran broadcast journalist Richard Liu has been before the camera for more than three decades, and brings a solid presence to this documentary, Unconditional, which covers a topic is close to his heart: the struggles of his parents as his father succumbs to Alzheimer’s and dementia, all made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The documentary also follows a mental health expert who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and an Afghanistan veteran who struggles with PTSD and TBI, but instead of providing more depth, the result is disjointed.
The film uses the hopeful image of a dandelion with its seeds half blown away into the winds and begins with a quote:
The choice you take
It’s not wrong to be brave
I know one day you will find a place
Somewhere growing with flowering grace
That sounds religious, but it’s not surprising because Liu’s father, Stephen was both a social worker and a pastor. Stephen, now in his late 80s, once gave advice to senior citizens in San Francisco. Now, he is a bedridden man who barely recognizes his son. As his father’s condition worsens, Richard re-arranges his work schedule to fly from his job at MSNBC in New York City to San Francisco. He’s there to help his mother and maintain a tenuous relationship with his forgetful father.
That means, Richard has gone from full-time work as a news anchor to a part-time job that runs from Friday to Sunday. On Monday, he flies to San Francisco. On Friday, he flies back to NYC, doing this three times a month.
At a caregivers conference, he meets Amy Bushatz, who is also a journalist. Her husband, Luke, is a veteran of the Afghanistan War and the couple and their sons, David and Huck, have moved to Alaska because the outdoors helps Luke cope with his PTSD and his Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The third person this film focuses on is mental health expert Kate Hendricks Thomas, a woman who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age, 38, and at the start of the film had given three TED talks and written three books. Thomas has now been given a terminal cancer diagnosis and must prepare her husband Shane and their five-year-old son Matthew for her death.
Although Richard Liu tells us that “caring for dad is a challenge of physical and mental heath,” he attempts to tie all the stories together by noting, “It was a lonely road until I found others.” Lately, I’ve been seeing quite a few films about filmmakers dealing with a parental decline–both as documentaries and as narrative feature films. Of course, we can’t avoid death, and this documentary does provide some guidelines.
As befitting of a veteran broadcast journalist, the storytelling, cinematography and editing for this documentary are good, but as a documentary, the three different stories fail to become a unified piece. While certainly mental and physical health continues to be an important issue in a nation that doesn’t have a functioning national health care system, these three stories are at odds with each other. Two of these situations are overshadowed by the sobriety of looming death. The other involves entanglements with the Veterans Administration.
The ending aptly illustrates this lack of focus as it attempts to provide updates and resources to viewers. These stories might have worked better as a series on caregivers and mental health issues.
Moreover, these three specific situations are likely also hard for the average person to relate to because all three families seem to be cushioned by financial stability. These families are probably better educated and better financed than the average family with an adult suffering from Alzheimer’s, PTSD or terminal illness. However, the universal is: Unconditional love is hard in sickness and not all families meet it with equal grace.
Unconditional screened at several film festivals last year, including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. It will have a limited release 3-9 May 2023 at selected AMC theaters. The documentary will also screen at the CAAM Fest in San Francisco on 13 May 2023.
AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Please fill out this 2-minute survey which we will use to improve our content. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.”