“I see this film as a compassionate exploration of the dying process. Joan and the members of her support system offer an articulate, heartfelt account of their journey. It ultimately raises questions about how we choose to live this day. The universal themes explored in this film make it perfectly appropriate for health professionals and the general public alike. I highly recommend it to anyone who might be open to deeply living their life.”
Laura Stell, RN
“This is a remarkable documentary of the transition from vibrant living into a meaningful process of dying. It deserves the attention of those who teach and counsel in the field of death and dying. Jim Lemkin has crafted a visual piece which combines honesty, beauty, and spiritual depth. The interplay between the individual dying process of a vital and courageous woman facing her own end and the universal themes of life and death rooted in nature and spirit make this film accessible to all of us. I also enthusiastically recommend Walking at the Edge to anyone involved in teaching, training, and learning in the field of death and dying, grief counseling and pastoral care.”
Thayer A. Greene, PhD
Former Chaplain, Amherst College
“Walking at the Edge shows how we can, as individuals, families and communities midwife each other through chronic diseases and the process of dying. Conscious birthing and conscious dying are one and the same – they both involve letting go and embracing the Unknown Mystery. This is what life is all about and what this fine film is about...”
Author, Childbirth Advocate, Educator
Author of Immaculate Deception
“My husband and I were struck with the sense of intimacy that prevails in Walking at the Edge. It was as if we all went through the process with Joan. We feel that it cuts to the core of the real issues in our lives....”
Mother, Feldenkrais Practitioner
“Mountain peaks of hope and valleys of despair; laughter and celebration, tears and fears; caring crowds and devastating loneliness... In this powerful video we hear intimate stories, review the objective facts of the situation and meet caring friends, relatives and professionals. Through the often private hell of breast cancer we see the disease's assault, but also the journey’s hope. Few videos speak the story with such clarity and with such hope. This is a treasure of strength for individual patients, couples, families and support groups.”
Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gilbert, BCC
Executive Director • The World Pastoral Care Center
Director of Chaplaincy Services • Sherman Health Systems
“Hospice nurses and nursing students who have seen this film in my ‘Dying and Death’ and ‘Holistic Health and Healing’ courses rate this film as one of their favorites. They can easily relate to the intimacy of the "lived experience" of Joan’s journey, as well as myriad care issues she and her support community face. It is a superb learning tool because it places the student at the heart of universal issues and needs that intensify at the end of life...”
Mary Anne Bright, RN, CS, EdD
Associate Professor • School of Nursing
University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA
“Walking at the Edge is a moving and evocative journey through a woman’s experience of dying. The film explores her relationships and her relationship to her own body poignantly and bravely. I highly recommend this film to those who are students and practitioners in end-of-life care.”
Joan Berzoff, PhD
Professor and Co-Director of the Doctoral Program,
Director of End-of-Life Certificate Program
Smith College School of Social Work
“Walking at the Edge offers superb insight into the fearsome and challenging concerns of cancer and its therapies, the preciousness of life and dealings with death. This film truly understands cancer and cancer care. It broadens healthcare workers’ criteria of “a successful outcome” in the treatment of cancer patients. It is essential viewing for doctors, nurses and healthcare givers of all kinds.”
Edward Valentine, MD
Oncologist • New York City
“There is a very important message that comes up in watching your film: Why is it that unless we are faced with imminent death we do not try to “keep our record straight...”? Why is it that until we know we are going to die do we not give any thought to the quality of our life..? Let me thank you for the opportunity of engaging in this “process”... (I don’t even want to call it a film).”
“American Public Television is very proud to offer Walking at the Edge: A Journey into Dying and Living, to Public Television stations in the United States. It is an inspirational story involving not just one person, but an exceptional profile of courage, clarity and transcendence within a small circle of souls. As a premiere distributor of social and medical documentary programming to Public Television stations nationwide, APT believes Walking at the Edge is an excellent addition to our line-up of quality, entertaining and informative programs.
We know [Walking at the Edge] has exceptional cross cultural and generational appeal—as proven by the commitment of programming executives to air the documentary on over 65% of the Public Television stations nationwide. The personal angle will be of particularly intrigue to stations and viewers—given the lack of such program content currently available as well as an increased demand for intelligent, personal barrier-conquering type of genre in the top 50 TV markets.
American Public Television
“…One of the strongest moments in the film comes when [Joan] falls silent, as she struggles to finish a thought. The camera stays on her face. In a commercial television documentary, we might feel we've invaded her privacy. But Lemkin has directed everyone in the documentary to speak directly into the camera.
…We already know [Joan’s] twinkling eyes and can accept a few minutes of her looking away. Finally, she finishes her thought. After the delay, she's boiled it to its essence. She knows she must surrender…
Lemkin's editing, which took five years to complete, lives up to the compact that must have emerged between him and [Joan]: She would say it all and he would spare little. The footage is …fresh, genuine and undeniably real. Despite its tenderness, it is a hard-nosed documentary that will stay with you.”
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Nov. 2, 2000
"Walking at the Edge" is a
candid portrait of a cancer fight
By LARRY PARNASS
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Half a year before she died, Joan Schneider, a Northampton chiropractor, said something that suggested she was drafting her obituary. Her fight against breast cancer had run into years. She tried a few phrases, as filmmaker Jim Lemkin looked on.
"Joan died," she said, paring away explanations and meanings dear friends might offer. "I walked a good way."
In the last two years of her life, Schneider said a lot to Lemkin, a naturopathic physician who practices in Haydenville and has been making films since he was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester in the mid-1960s.
At the start of "Walking at the Edge," Lemkin's hour-long documentary about Schneider's illness, we hear that this story was first meant to be a video remembrance of a friend, for other friends. As the tape ran, Lemkin saw Schneider was offering more than tokens.
She is unflinching, for instance, as the camera observes her struggle to rise from a lawn chair, the summer before she died at the age of 40, in January 1995. With a cane in hand and her once-muscular legs painfully thin, she sits gathering what strength she can - and waits 15 seconds for it to come.
With excruciating slowness, she rises. "Voila," she says with a deadpanned flourish. "She's up."
Because she was willing to speak so candidly, and granted Lemkin such access, he was able to construct a kind but pointed account of Schneider's tenacity, humor and remarkable self-possession in the face of this most feared experience. She succeeds, for the most part, at dying on her own terms.
Lemkin casts his friend as a teacher just learning the lessons she is imparting. Together, they let contradictions wrestle with confidence.
We see her sifting emotions and weighing decisions - in footage that is fresh, genuine and undeniably real. Despite its tenderness, it is a hard-nosed documentary that will stay with you. It will be shown Sunday at 12:30 p.m. in Stoddard Hall at Smith College as part of the Northampton Film Festival.
"I was trying to make a film that doesn't function on the cerebral level, any more than necessary," Lemkin said. "I believe communication is much better at that level. I'm not going for emotions particularly, but they come up for people."
Lemkin manages to keep sentiment at bay, but doesn't shy from it. It is an aspect of Schneider's dying, for she'll miss her friends. And those friends - a remarkable, durable group - are preparing to suffer her loss.
As a narrative tool, Lemkin interposes questions to viewers, usually to footage of a natural scene like a wave washing a beach. The questions are spare and philosophical. They guide our thinking about the life Schneider is fighting to keep, as cancer spreads through her chest and lungs, and eventually into her brain.
She underwent two lumpectomies, but initially declined the far more invasive surgery of having her breasts removed. That decision, and some indecision about other treatments, we are led to believe, proved tragic.
"When we finally accept that we will die, what do we lose and what do we gain?" the filmmaker asks. Elsewhere he intones, "Can we heal as we die?"
Through the documentary, the answers come in fits and starts from Schneider herself, though it is up to viewers to assemble them. We follow her to treatments and healing circles and watch her scrub her face and visit with a beloved niece.
She bangs a drum with her eyes closed, seeming to draw a pulse from its rhythm. In quiet and peace, she adjusts a telescope from her chair near the Summit House, where she's scanning the skies for birds.
Lemkin, at one point, asks her how many pills she takes each meal. They are there before us, piles of them. Thirty, she says. "It's a big orchestration," she says, "to be very sick and conscious."
We witness moments where she seems to be losing, then winning, then losing. Through it all, she is trying to die consciously. She faces up to the fight and generously opens her life to others.
Episodic as it is, the film could have failed to be more than the selected wit and wisdom of a courageous cancer patient. Lemkin's delicate voice-over questions ("I just wanted to float them," he says) spur us to look deeper.
Because he was a friend, the story could have been too protective, for that's a noble instinct in such times. Lemkin's editing, which took five years to complete, lives up to the compact that must have emerged between him and Schneider: She would say it all and he would spare little.
That meant he included moments when Schneider seems to fall away from lessons she's learned about dying. In July 1994, at a healing circle with friends, she asks for prayers to help her move along. "I'm really ready to go," she says.
Later, that resolve has eroded. She is sitting for an alternative health treatment. "There's no reason why I can't be a miracle," she says. "It's cured other people. Why not me?"
As that winter comes on, it's clear to us there is to be no miracle. We also learn this remarkable doer will not be able to heal a rift with her parents.
One of the strongest moments in the film comes when Schneider falls silent, as she struggles to finish a thought. The camera stays on her face. In a commercial television documentary, we might feel we've invaded her privacy. But Lemkin has directed everyone in the documentary to speak directly into the camera.
We already know Schneider's twinkling eyes and can accept a few minutes of her looking away. Finally, she finishes her thought. After the delay, she's boiled it to its essence. She knows she must surrender.
As he approached the film's premier this weekend, Lemkin gathered two dozen current or former cancer patients and showed them the work. He felt they could help him find weaknesses or missteps. The preview went well.
"They felt validated - that their struggle isn't pretty. It's full of contradictions," he said.
After this weekend, the film goes on to WGBY-TV in Springfield, the PBS affiliate, where it will be shown six times early next year. Lemkin is seeking other outlets as well.
Like his subject, he feels he has a story people must hear. It was Schneider who'd told him that a key disappointment, after years of pain and struggle, was that she'd become wise, but had no time left to put that wisdom to use. It was a marvel to her - and bittersweet - that even as it closes us down, death pushes us to open-heartedness.
As she put it, "I'd like to relish the lessons that I've learned." Lemkin's work helps guarantee those lessons won't be lost.
A Journey Through Conscious Dying
Mary Anne Bright, RN, CS, EdD
School of Nursing
University of Massachusetts.
Amherst, MA 10003
This beautiful film takes the viewer on a journey through one woman's experience of conscious dying. It is the story of Joan, a woman in her early 40's with breast cancer, who shows us that it is possible to live fully with a terminal diagnosis, and that the process of dying can be a journey of deep healing and personal growth. The viewer is invited into the last two years of Joan's life to bear witness to her spirited engagement with the exigencies of the disease process, treatment decisions, the demands of daily life, the ebb and flow of her emotions, her efforts to complete "unfinished business," and the depth of her desire to live with full awareness in every moment, even unto death. Watching this film, one feels like a privileged witness to Joan's struggle with pain, fear and grief, as well her joy, hopes, and prayers. Joan's gift to us is her demonstration of how awareness of one's own death can deepen the experience of living.
The film captures the complexities of Joan's living and dying, which were inextricably intertwined. We follow her through the treatment process: diagnostic procedures, doctors' visits, and her use of both conventional and complementary/alternative treatments in her search for cure. We observe her responses to remissions and exaserbations of the illness, and how Joan integrates all of her experiences, happy and unwelcome, into her sense of self, her relationships with others, and her desire to "walk a good path." Moments of daily life are recorded, and depict the real impact of the illness and the necessities of care that emerge as essential to the quality of her life. We see Joan's experiences, not only through her eyes, but also through the eyes of the people in her life with whom she was close. Joan's friends and family were critical to her care and support, and the film chronicles the many ways in which their love and service facilitated her healing. The value of a healing community for the chronically ill and dying, integrated with the service of health care professionals, is a strong message of this film.
Joan's relationship with two of her health care professionals- her hospice nurse and oncologist- demonstrates what could be considered ideal professional interactions: Both actively co-participated in Joan's healing, supporting her decisions while lending their expertise with grace and respect. The hospice nurse's work with Joan's family and friends in the final hours of Joan's life depicts the unique contribution that hospice nursing can make to "a good death."
This film accomplishes a very powerful effect, that is, the viewer has a sense of "being there" as a witness in Joan's life. The viewer experiences an intimacy with Joan as her life is chronicled with simplicity, directness, and honesty. The film maker, Jim Lemkin is a friend of Joan's, and he is able to capture a closeness with her that is conveyed with great effectiveness. Jim is also a naturopathic physician, and from this vantage point included salient aspects of Joan's interface with the health care system, both conventional and "alternative." It is refreshing to see a film address issues of integrative care in such a balanced and unbiased manner.
Hospice nurses and nursing students who've seen this film in my Dying and Death and Holistic Health and Healing courses rate this film as one of their favorites. This film presents the intimacy of the "lived experience" of Joan's journey, as well as myriad care issues facing the dying person and family, in a manner that both instructs and inspires. This film will not soon be out of date, because it addresses universal issues and needs that face persons at the end of life. The film offers no pat answers, rather it asks the questions that we all face.
The film transcends a merely "clinical" focus in its aesthetic presentation. Simple but elegant music weaves a harmonic background that integrates the sense of movement through the time of Joan's life. The filmmaker intersperses Joan's story with interludes of scenes from nature-a still pond, a flowing stream, an autumn leaf blown by the wind, a quiet winter day. During each of these lovely natural interludes, the filmmaker poses a question that invites deep reflection. One of the questions he asks is, "Can we heal as we die?" This extraordinary film expresses Joan's answer: "Yes!"