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Filmmaking and Other Anxieties: Lyda Kuth’s First Film

What happens when a longtime indie film funder finally picks up a camera? A journey of self-discovery as she slowly turns the lens on herself.

By Cheryl Eagan-Donovan

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Love and Other Anxieties, screening April 28 & 29

Independent film funder and guru Lyda Kuth has nurtured and guided many successful filmmakers as founder and executive director of the LEF Foundation, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. What she hadn’t done until now was tried her own hand at making a documentary. What she learned through the process was ultimately as much about understanding herself as it was about understanding filmmaking.

On a sunny February afternoon, Kuth welcomed me to her beautiful home in Cambridge to talk about her directorial debut, Love and Other Anxieties. Kuth had long had a secret wish to be creative, and the opportunity finally presented itself when her friend, director Mary Jane Doherty, offered to partner with Kuth to form Nadita Productions. Kuth would be Executive Producer of MJ’s current film project about Cuban ballet, and Doherty would assist Kuth in making her first film, envisioned as a modest, low budget, twenty-minute short. They were joined by LEF alumni Lucia Small (My Father the Genius) and Amy Geller (For the Love of Movies) and composer Andrew Willis, who has worked with director Errol Morris. “What started out as ‘Filmmaking 101’ ended up five years later as a feature-length documentary,” Kuth explained.

Inspired by Stephanie Coontz’ 2005 book, Marriage, A History, Kuth decided to explore the premise that “nobody is an expert on love.” The book states that institution of marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the previous 3,000 years. Intrigued, Kuth set out to interview people of different ages and demographics, beginning with Coontz. The film started out as a “lighthearted survey” of current attitudes about love and marriage, a film suggested by the fact that her own marriage would soon be redefined by her only daughter, Lily, leaving home to attend college.

It was only in the edit room, Kuth explained, that it became a personal documentary. Watching the first 20 hours of interview footage and looking for a narrative arc, editor and co-writer Small observed that Kuth was in every shot. This was no accident. As cinematographer, Doherty had insisted on a spontaneous style for all interviews, where the subject would be busy, working or making dinner, while Kuth asked questions. It did come as a surprise to Kuth when, on their first shoot, Doherty casually mentioned that she would be on camera. Luckily, Kuth was a natural in front of the lens.

Small asked the obvious questions. “Why is [Kuth] on this journey?” “What are the different themes around love and long-term commitment?” Kuth describes the post–production process as “organic,” evolving over a two-year period where she and Small would edit for ten days at a time, show the work-in-progress to other documentary filmmakers, incorporate their feedback, and continue the “excavation,” mining her own personal story for the narrative. Three-quarters of the way through the edit, when they had reached the rough-cut stage, another trusted filmmaker colleague identified Love and Other Anxieties as a midlife story. Kuth agreed that the prospect of her daughter leaving home, had forced her to confront and evaluate everything in her life: her own childhood and relationship with her mother, her own college experience, where she met her future husband Kent, their marriage and the birth of Lily, and their future together as empty-nesters. “I didn’t realize how much my daughter’s departure was one of the reasons for my wanting to make the film,” she explained. With this recognition, Kuth’s journey became the through-line for the film.

All the while, Kuth was aware of walking the fine line between being forthright and overexposed. “It was a big adjustment for the family when the film became personal.” Her husband and daughter saw interim cuts of the film during the editing process, so there were no real surprises. They both understood that it was Kuth’s story. Still, there were challenges when the subject matter revealed parts of her personal history that they hadn’t previously discussed as a family. At the screening at the Camden International Film Festival, Lily joined her mother via Skype from New Zealand for the Q&A session. Lily said, “Initially, I didn’t really understand why Mom was making this film about marriage, and neither my dad nor I thought it was going to be personal.” Eventually, Lily explained, they all understood that “it had to go there to become a film.”

Among the many surprising things that Kuth reveals about herself in this heartfelt, moving film, is that she is a writer. We all know her as the superhero, film-funding angel, and tireless champion of indie auteurs. Love and Other Anxieties, its title taken from filmmaking pioneer Ed Pincus’s Life and Other Anxieties, introduces the viewer to a very real person. On-screen, Kuth is as vulnerable as she is powerful off-screen. Here is a woman with the courage to examine how she became who she is and ask who she wants to become in the next phase of her life. It is clearly a coming of age story, one unique to her specific life history but with resonance for boomer moms throughout the country. We talked about the similarities between personal documentaries and written memoirs, and a process she calls excavation. In the film she talks about herself as a ruminator -- one who considers a question repeatedly. The film itself is a quiet meditation, a private reflection on a very public life.

What were Kuth’s biggest take-aways from the experience? First, that a filmmaker takes the same risks as a writer in terms of revealing her true self and exposing the people she loves. The most challenging part of the process, and the thing that she had not understood before, was the huge amount of time required to craft a narrative. This first-hand knowledge of the commitment needed to achieve effective visual storytelling allows her to relate to other filmmakers with new empathy. She also found that while the amount work required to create a film is formidable, it is extremely satisfying. The response at Camden was very positive. The film really struck a chord with women in their midlife years, reflecting on their own lives and relationships with mothers, daughters, and spouses. She is enthusiastic about the potential for the film to be a catalyst, sparking conversations between several generations of women at post-screening discussions with audiences.

Identity and separation are poignant themes in the film. Kuth acknowledges that her daughter will be creating her own story. “I needed a big project to replace that void, that very important role as mother in my life,” she says. “Coming to terms with an independent life -- it really comes home. It makes the transition easier to navigate.”

Love and Other Anxieties will have its Massachusetts premiere at the Independent Film Festival Boston on Sunday, April 29th at 3:15 pm at the Somerville Theater, and its Vermont premiere on Saturday, April 28th at 10:00 am at the Main Street Museum at the White River Indie Film Festival. Check out the trailer here.