Road to recovery: Helen S. Cohen (left) and Mark Lipman (not pictured) film the recovery of Dr. Grace Dammann (right) at Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach.

Cohen and Lipman's Recovering Friend in Forest

Michael Fox February 23, 2010

On May 21, 2008, Dr. Grace Dammann was injured in a head-on car crash on the Golden Gate Bridge. She spent 45 days in a coma and 13 months in the hospital, gradually working her way back from the edge. When the doctors finally released her last June, Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman were ready with a camera. “We jumped in literally the day she went home,” Cohen recalls, “and filmed the arduous process of wheelchair to car to wheelchair to ramp to home” at Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach. The husband-and-wife team has been rolling ever since, but the shape and structure of their film remains very much up in the air.

Cohen and Lipman are longtime friends with their subject, which accounts for the exceptional access. The filmmakers also have extensive track records, so their seemingly impulsive leap into verit‚ is grounded in experience. During her tenure as co-director of Women’s Educational Media (now called GroundSpark), Cohen produced It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in Schools, That’s a Family! and Let’s Get Real. Lipman’s body of work includes the first-person doc Father’s Day and Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street, an open-ended portrait of a Boston neighborhood’s revitalization.

Dr. Dammann’s recovery and rehabilitation might have supplied the impetus to the filmmakers, but they describe her as a fascinating figure long before the traumatic event that upended her life. A sixth-generation physician, Dr. Dammann was among the first caregivers to treat AIDS patients. Fifteen years ago, she and her longtime partner, Fu Schroeder, adopted a disabled infant. (Sabrina is the step-granddaughter of Isabel Allende, who devotes a section of her 2008 memoir, The Sum of Our Days, to the couple). Furthermore, Fu is an ordained Buddhist priest and Dr. Dammann a Buddhist who was one of 47 people worldwide to receive the Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award in 2006 from the Dalai Lama.

“Grace is, prior to the accident and separate from the accident, an incredibly compelling story and character,” Cohen notes. “A doctor, a Buddhist, a mother, a revered clinician and a friend to a vast and fascinating network of people. A big thread of this whole story is community, and the power of community in healing and supporting somebody during survival and the long rehab process.”

Lipman is struck most by Dr, Dammann’s self-awareness and equanimity. “In June,” he recalls, “she said that she had never been so happy, which is not what you would expect someone in her circumstances to say. Grace says that her brain has changed as a result of the accident, but it’s hard to identify what those changes have been and how they impact the reconstruction of her life. So it becomes a film about identity and the process of self-discovery as well.” He adds, “A Western doctor and a practicing Buddhist is a remarkable blend of experiences.”

The filmmakers envision Forest of Swords — the doc’s working title, taken from the title of a Buddhist koan–as a broad-appeal saga of getting through a traumatic event and rebuilding one’s life.

“There are Buddhist themes and personal aspects to Grace’s story that won’t speak to everybody, but I think her personality and who she is will touch many, many people,” Cohen asserts. “She talks about the film being a resource for practitioners, as well as families of people going through this situation.” Dr. Dammann also sees the film advancing her efforts to get the powers that be to erect a barrier on the bridge.

The filmmakers have been working without funding, and plan to begin applying for grants and cutting a trailer in the coming months. They haven’t hired any crewmembers to this point, but have already seen dividends from the flip camera they gave Fu.

“One of the limitations on our part is, short of moving in with them, we really can’t be there all the time,” Cohen explains. “The bedtime and the waking up and the more intimate and frankly more difficult periods that you can’t just start in on cue, Fu has been able to get those moments. And she’s turned out to be a skillful and intuitive cameraperson.”

“She even lets people leave the frame,” Lipman effuses. “She knows how to shoot footage in a way that makes it easier to edit so that you can jump to another location or scene without it being jarring.”

The larger question, of course, is what direction Forest of Swords will take. And what would constitute a climactic event, from the viewers’ perspective, and a satisfying conclusion?

“In a very Buddhist manner, we don’t know,” Cohen freely admits. “And that’s part of what this filmmaking process is about–being in it and following the story and seeing what happens. The arc is an evolving thing unto itself. For a while, Mark kept asking, ‘What’s the end?’ We’ve both come to realize we’ll know it when we get there. But we can’t create structure for the arc where we sit right now.”

Notes from the Underground
The Balboa Theatre marks its 84th birthday this Sunday, February 28, with a varied program evoking a trip to the movies in 1926 that includes a new short film, Double Features, shot at the theater. The Roxie has sequelitis, with Elliot Lavine returning to program another series of rare noir. “I Still Wake Up Dreaming” unspools May 14-27. Wolfe Video will release Ellen Seidler and Megan Siler’s S.F.-shot, lesbian romantic comedy And Then Came Lola on DVD May 18. That still leaves a small theatrical window for an enterprising exhibitor. The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man finally closes tomorrow (Thursday) after 20 weeks on San Francisco screens. These days, that’s a remarkable run.

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