death. everything. nothing

Virtual Aspen ShortsFest  |  Tuesday, Apr. 6–Sunday, Apr. 11   |  Tickets available online 

It’s an oft-repeated, uncomfortable reminder about the frailty of the human condition, particularly in the midst of a deadly pandemic: Dying is a part of living.

Death don’t have no mercy, in this land,” the great Piedmont blues and gospel guitarist Rev. Gary Davis once sang.Come to your house, and he won’t stay long. Look in the bed and you’ll find your mother gone.”

More than a half-century later, the director LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant evokes the sentiment of that sorrow with death. everything. nothing, a powerful six-minute film about the death of her mother, Gwendolyn Avis “Gwennie” Manigault, almost a year ago.

Manigault-Bryant has been in Durham since June, 2019, while on sabbatical from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she is a professor of Africana Studies. death. everything. nothing is her third short film.

The cause was end-stage liver disease and kidney failure, not COVID-19; still, the pandemic profoundly shaped Manigault-Bryant’s experience of loss and saying goodbye. Her role as a grieving daughter was further complicated by separation, distance, time, and a global pandemic.

“Death is an inevitability we can’t ever really shake,” Manigault-Bryant told the INDY. “Now we’re wrestling with this inevitability in the height of a pandemic.”

On March 8, officials with Aspen Film, a year-round film arts and education organization in Aspen, Colorado, announced that Manigault-Bryant’s poignant narrative has been selected to premiere at the 30th annual Aspen ShortsFest.

This is heady stuff. Manigault-Bryant’s next stop might well be the Academy Awards.

The festival is one of only four Oscar-qualifying festivals in the U.S. dedicated to short films. Organizers tout the event as one of the premier short film festivals, showcasing the best in cinema from around the world. The film’s selection for Shortsfest screening, Manigault-Bryant says, was “a total surprise.”

“I never had the intention of entering the film into anything,” she says. “I made it for myself alone, out of my own great loss.”

Manigault-Bryant earned her undergraduate degree from Duke University. Her first two films, NOURISH and Somos Una—about her son’s dual language program at Lakewood Elementary School in west Durham—were both produced years later, while she was studying at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

The two films did not feel “as palpably powerful or timely,” she says about her decision to not enter them on the film festival circuit. The new film, finished in June of last year, was born out of an essay that she wrote for The New York Times called “My Mother Is Busy Getting Ready To Die.” The essay details the way that the passing of her mother, at a hospice facility in Summerville, South Carolina, mirrored the conditions of COVID-19.

Six days before she died, on April 28, that essay appeared in the op-ed pages of the Times. Twenty minutes after it was posted, a doctor told Manigault-Bryant that Ms. Gwennie was not going to survive.

“I got the sense that she was saddened by it, but really proud,” Manigault-Bryant says of her mother’s reaction to the essay.

The black-and-white film that evolved out of that essay may be short, but it will resonate widely with audiences. It speaks to the global fear of a devastating and life-altering disease that has primarily targeted the elderly, but left no one entirely immune from the impact.

This is especially true with the loss of loved ones who died soon after contracting the virus. Manigault-Bryant tried to come to terms with a realization felt by hundreds of thousands of family members across America who could not properly grieve the loss of their loved ones: her mother was going to die soon, most likely alone, and she was afraid.

“It’s funny,” Manigault-Bryant says. “It’s coming up on a year since she passed, and anyone I talk to who has lost a parent—especially a  mother—it could be a year ago, or 20 years ago. It still carries weight.”

COVID-19 laid bare the grim reality of systemic inequities for people like Ms. Gwennie—too young for Medicare at 64, Black, uninsured, and alone. Ms. Gwennie may have passed from terminal illness, but her circumstances left her at the bottom of the pandemic’s murky barrel.

In early April of last year, Manigault-Bryant began collecting photos of Ms. Gwennie and filming her at her mobile home.

“I saw that she was deteriorating,” Manigault-Bryant says. “I could hear on the phone she didn’t sound like herself.”

Gwennie Manigault grew up in the tiny hamlet of Moncks Corner, a town of about 11,419 people who are steeped in Gullah/Geechee folkways.

In the years before her death, Manigault-Bryant says, Ms. Gwennie was a stylish, sweet-eyed woman, with a high, full cheekbone, her hair often in a curly Afro paired with hoop earrings.

By the time she was diagnosed with late stage liver disease and failing kidneys it was too late, and the doctors could not save her. In the days before she died, the disease had left her gaunt, her eyes sunken, and near-skeletal. She was too weak to even hold up her cell phone to FaceTime with her family.

Manigault-Bryant says it’s a “bummer” to not be able to attend in person the virtual festival, but she’s also excited about the wider swath of audience-goers who are showing up online for virtual festivals here in Durham and across the country.

“The Hayti Film Festival was amazing,” she says, referencing the Durham festival that went partly virtual last month. “It’s a way for more people to have access to the festivals.”

“It’s a story I wish I didn’t have to tell, and yet the film is out in the world,” Manigault-Bryant says. “I just feel it’s a very painful homage to my mother.” 

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