Thelma Pepper takes phenomenal photographs of Alzheimer’s patients and other long term care residents. The images she captures show individuality and a wealth of spirit in the subject
Five years ago the National Film Board became aware of Pepper’s artwork and approached Gemini award winning director Thomas Hale (a one-time student of the U of S and past writer for the Sheaf) to investigate the possibility of a film on Thelma Pepper, now in her 90s after 30 years of taking photographs.
“(Thelma) discovered something in the residents that really started to raise eyebrows. She found something that maybe others had neglected to see. The NFB said, ”˜You go find out if this could make a film,’ ” said Hale.
When Hale contacted Pepper, she insisted that they meet at the Sherbrooke Community Centre. She implied there was something extraordinary happening there.
It must have been true because soon after their meeting Hale went into 18 months of development, writing pitch-documents for A Year at Sherbrooke before it went to the national programming board in Montreal and received the go-ahead on production.
The Sherbrooke Community Centre subscribes to a specific philosophy of the healing arts. Initially started by Dr. William H. Thomas in upstate New York, the Eden Alternative is a philosophy which focuses on treating the spirit of a person, at the point where medical science has done all it can.
“It’s a philosophy,” said Hale. “Basically, their belief is that we have really perfected the ability to meet people’s medical needs but a lot of people in long-term care are dying of loneliness. So they have a system where they look after the whole person; they engage people’s minds with things like art, children, a greenhouse with plants and animals. It’s really cool. So Thelma took me to that place, and the film became about Thelma and this kind of really amazing long-term care.”
Artistic expression quickly becomes a centre-point for the film, as Pepper’s work engaging with the residents and taking their photographs opens the door for an artist-in-residence program at the Centre.
Local artist Jeff Nachtigall begins working as a painting instructor with the residents. Nachtigall’s approach is idiosyncratic yet still matches the philosophy of the centre. His goal is to find the artist in the person and, eventually, get a great art show out of his work with the residents.
“As filmmakers this was intense subject matter and actually some days it was really difficult for us.”
Of course, a documentary film of this nature is not all light and hope. An avid cyclist and past university professor was paralyzed in a biking accident, forced to live in a manner opposite to that which he found meaningful. Similarly, a young man who went diving in the South Saskatchewan river and broke his neck must now deal with life in a wheelchair.
“As filmmakers this was intense subject matter and actually some days it was really difficult for us,” said Hale. “And I think all that feeling is in the film. People have said that it is a very intense film, a serious film.”
The film, which premiered at the NFB’s flagship theatre in Toronto, was well attended by students and practitioners in particular. Hale hopes that this film sparks interest especially among students of medicine at the U of S.
“There’s a medical school (at the U of S) and a nursing school here. There is a heavy medical science side of this campus and I wonder if some of the students studying in the healing arts might not find this film really informative.
“When this film played in Toronto there was a lot of interest and passion shown by the York University people because they have an art therapy program there. I mean, to call this a therapy really sort of denigrates this; it’s more of a philosophy. But to see what art, creativity, being alive in an intellectual and spiritual way can do for people is amazing.”