BEST SOUTHERN FILM NOMINEE:
A Sister’s Call, Kyle Tekiela
As part of our ongoing series spotlighting the nominees for our “Best Southern Film Award” at the Little Rock Film Festival, Levi Agee chats with Kyle Tekiela, who co-directed the documentary A Sister's Call with Rebecca Schaper. See Natalie Elliot's interview with Pilgrim Song director Martha Stephens here, and Jake Ross’s interview with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin here.
Rebecca Schaper and Kyle Tekiela’s film A Sister’s Call brought out a lot of what I have been internalizing over the years. Rebecca’s brother Call went missing in 1977, and twenty years later, she found him homeless and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The film follows her struggle to get Call back on his feet while friction and drama within her family arises.
As hard as it is to imagine, losing a sibling to a mental illness or disability can feel, at least at times, worse than losing them to death. In death, at least, there is finality, an opportunity for grieving. My brother had a head injury over fifteen years ago that caused severe mental retardation and memory loss; knowing that I can’t fix him or even communicate with him all the time can be excruciating.
For this, and other reasons relating to what it uncovers, the documentary is tough to watch. I sat in the theater for both screenings at the Little Rock Film Festival last month, and both times everyone in the audience seemed deeply stirred. That isn’t to say A Sister's Call is melodramatic: This heartbreaking story is real and personal, and the anguish and joy depicted on the screen comes to us honestly. The film touches on a lot of issues including mental illness, homelessness, and therapy. But the biggest thing that makes this film stand out is the strength and zeal displayed by Rebecca Schaper. Part-documentarian, part-subject, she filmed an entire decade of family turmoil and redemption herself before seeking an editor in Kyle.
I was able to host a few Q&As with Rebecca and the film’s co-director, Kyle, during the festival. Listening to how audience members connected to the film made me feel less alone. After the festival, I was able to talk with Kyle about his role in the film as well as his background and what he has planned for the future.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: You co-directed the film alongside Rebecca Schaper, who is also one of the subjects in the movie. What was your experience working with her as well as filming her personal story?
Kyle Tekiela: Rebecca had been filming this documentary for ten years before she met me. She needed an editor and randomly found me through a friend of a friend of my wife. We had coffee one day, and immediately I could tell that Rebecca had a special energy about her. She later told me that she immediately knew I was the perfect person to tell her story.
An hour into our first meeting, she pulled out a box of about two hundred hours of footage and handed it to me with a big smile and said: “I’m giving you my life, don’t mess it up!”
It was not easy making this film. I spent about six months just going through all the footage and digesting the information. I didn’t have a rough cut for about two years after our initial meeting, but Rebecca was so patient and encouraging. She gave me the space I needed to take the film in the direction I thought it should go, trusting my judgment every step of the way. It took four years in edit to finish the film, and we couldn’t be happier with the final cut.
The OA: Do you think your background in news and commercial production prepared you for this documentary?
KT: I think it’s fair to say that nothing can prepare someone for a project like A Sister’s Call. My work experience before A Sister’s Call was mostly in short-form documentary and movie-trailer editing, so taking on something as massive as A Sister’s Call was a daunting and, at times, extremely torturous plight.
Being the only creative eye in a dark room for hours upon hours trying to assemble this impossible puzzle was maddening. My mood changed, I became unhealthy, pale, exhausted. I felt like I was digging a hole that I never thought I would get out of— and this lasted for four years. Honestly, I have no idea how I am still married after all that; my wife is a saint.
The OA: The film deals with some tough subject matter, including mental illness—more specifically, paranoid schizophrenia. Do you think the film gives an accurate depiction of the disease, or do you think Call's case was unique?
KT: I don’t think many people truly understand what paranoid schizophrenia is. While making this documentary, I’ve learned that it is such a liquid illness. There is no exact mold for diagnosis, and, even worse, there’s no exact treatment. It’s a guessing game, mixing different pills and treatments like some sort of witches’ brew.
In the case of Call, who is extremely sweet and, at times, very lucid—he can remember dates and places like some kind of Rain Man—he would drift into periods of disillusionment and extreme paranoia full of voices telling him he’s going to “burn.” These voices are as real and normal to him as a normal day is to us.
The film captures these moments, the good and the bad, without bias or judgment. It is simply shown as it happened, open to interpretation. That was a goal from day one—teach the audience about the illness simply by letting them experience it in all its beauty and horror.
The OA: What was the hardest part about making the film and what was the best part?
KT: The hardest part by far was editing the hundreds of hours of footage into something that anybody can follow and understand without boring them to death.
The best was getting to know this truly wonderful and incredible family on a very intimate level. I honestly can say I have never met a more inspiring group of people in my entire life than Rebecca and her family. And, believe it or not, they’re hilarious! They have a very active sense of humor.
The OA: Was there ever a point while filming you didn’t feel comfortable shooting or were worried about showing a too intimate moment in this family’s life?
KT: My most memorable experience was when we filmed the dinner table scene with the family. About halfway through the dinner, the conversation became very serious and intense. They started talking about things that they never talked to one another about before—their fears and true feelings were spilling out for the first time… in front of the camera.
To me, it felt like time slowed down, and I remember the hairs perking up on the back of my neck as I was filming. By the end of the night, I think everybody knew that something special just happened. We all talked about it after, and the family said to me, “Use it all if you want, it’s what really happened.” It is that openness and raw honesty that makes this family so special. They are truly special people.
The OA: Has Call seen the film?
KT: Call loves the film! We’ve played about six screenings on the East Coast, and Call came to all of them. He loves getting on stage afterwards and answering questions and meeting people. He gets tired pretty quickly, but he is amazing to watch! I love that guy.
The OA: Were there any deleted scenes or threads from the film that were cut that you wished could have made it in the film? I noticed some extras available on the website.
KT: No threads were deleted, but scenes definitely. It’s very difficult to fit fourteen years into seventy-six minutes! Of the scenes we had to cut, my favorite was this makeover scene we shot before Call goes to his forty-year high-school reunion. We filmed Call working out, going to a spa, shopping...we had a lot of fun that day. Call is a riot!
The OA: What has been the response from audiences?
KT: People walk out very moved. It touches people on a primal level. People e-mail me a week or so after screenings telling me they are still talking about it and taking it all in.
We have been fortunate enough to partner with many mental health organizations and even colleges who set up screenings for their members and students. They turn it into an event of sorts, and the feedback is always encouraging. We wanted this film to be a conversation starter about issues that are taboo, and so far it’s been a very successful tool in doing just that.
The OA: Any future projects lined up?
KT: Too many! I’m working on a docu-series about this amazing nonprofit called BeRemedy that uses social media to meet needs across the country.
I’m also producing a few narrative features that will be announced soon, including one that takes place during World War II in the Jim Crow South.