Art Memory: Lucia Small, 1963-2022 – artsfuse.org | Episode Movies

By Peter Keough

This is a great loss for cinema and in particular for the Boston filmmaking community, a close-knit group in which Lucia Small enjoyed many friendships and fruitful collaborations.

The late filmmaker Lucia Small. Photo: Gulnara Niaz.

Lucia Small, whose powerful, intimate documentaries My father the genius (2002), That Ax in the attic (2007) One cut, one life (2014) and woman talk (2022) explored tragedy and resilience with clarity, compassion and humor, died November 19. She was 59, a victim of pancreatic cancer. It’s a heavy loss for cinema and especially for the local filmmaking community, a close-knit group in which Small maintained many friendships and engaged in fruitful collaborations.

Small began her media career on public radio and demonstrated her commitment to environmental issues by starting and developing the news magazine program life on earth (1992-1994), the first such series on NPR. After discovering film, she produced several award-winning projects for ITVS, PBS, and American Public Television, including Beth Harrington’s The Blinking Madonna and Other Miracles (1995), Laurel Chitens The Jew in the Lotus (1997), and Katrina Browns traces of trade (2008).

But with her feature film directorial debut My father the genius (2002) Small masterfully established her distinctive style and voice, demonstrating her insights into the connection between the personal and the profound, the absurd and the serious.

Glen Small, the title’s estranged patriarch, informed Lucia, his daughter, that he had included her in his will and asked her to write his biography. Instead, Small agreed to make a film about his life, despite her misgivings. On the one hand, her father was a renowned architect (his designs look as revolutionary and visionary as those of Buckminster Fuller, for example) who dedicated his career to improving human existence, “saving the world through architecture”. But then again, as a husband, womanizer, and neglectful father, he was broke. And though he was on the verge of greatness at 31, by 61 he was nearing professional and financial ruin. His self-confessed genius had brought him down over his selfish feuds with more established architects.

Is Glenn Small worthy of a movie?

Lucia Small took up this challenge. She navigated her father’s conflicted life through a combination of empathy, keen observation, irony, and compassion. In its balance of absurdity, heaviness and humanity, the film resembles a non-fiction version by Wes Anderson The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

For her next two projects, Small teamed up with Ed Pincus, a veteran documentary filmmaker who was known for his outspoken approach to pioneering the personal non-fiction genre while he was studying at MIT Diaries 1971-1976 (1982). Hers would be the most fruitful and consistent of Small’s many collaborations with local filmmakers.

in the The ax in the attic (2007), their first film together, they moved the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and traveled, camera in hand, from New England to New Orleans to witness the storm’s aftermath in person. They often quarreled along the way, but soon the scale of the disaster, the government’s ineptitude, and the exposed racial and class injustices outweighed petty concerns. What they witnessed challenged the ethics of making a film about tragedy suffered by others; and the two confronted this moral dilemma in the same way as James Agee did in his book on impoverished southern sharecroppers, Now let’s praise famous men (1941). As in all of her films, Small demonstrated an eye for the telling, often devastating, details — the title, for example, refers to the axes that New Orleans residents, guided by previous storm experiences, hid in their attics to chop a hole in the roof to avoid rising tides.

Filmmaker Lucia Small in one scene One cut, one life. Photo: Ed Pincus.

For her second film One cut, one life (2014) the tragedy is not observed or theoretical. It’s personal. Small had just lost two close friends to shocking, violent circumstances – including filmmaker Karen Schmeer, editor of My father the genius. Now she learns that Pincus himself has terminal leukemia. So the two decide to work together to chronicle his final days. It is an unabashed exploration of mortality, grief and loss.

Pincus’ wife Jane expresses doubts about the procedure. As Small recalled when I interviewed her about the film for the Boston globe, Jane Pincus felt that instead of bringing her closer to the experience, the film alienated her from it. “She wants to live life, not explore it,” Small said. “At least not while it’s happening. She has legitimate questions about the ethics of what we do. Whether we as filmmakers find the truth or create it.” Despite this restraint, the power of some scenes is unforgettable, reminiscent of the film in its chaotic eloquence and pathos lightning over water (1980), Wim Wenders-like documentary about the last days of director Nicholas Ray.

After the sometimes overwhelming emotions and the heavy mood One cut, one life Small’s last film with the impish title, deceptively subtle woman talk, delighted by the liveliness and exuberance of his young subjects, five female members of the Newton South Debate Team. You are motivated, brilliant, occasionally self-questioning, often merciless and able to come up with arguments so quick as to be incomprehensible. But given the bias of the mostly male judges, they have less of a chance of winning (40 percent of high school debaters are girls, but only 10 percent win) than the boys in the competition. Because they are female, their voices go unnoticed.

But within the narrow confines of the high school debate, the system is changing. The same is true of the attitude of the female debaters Small followed for five years. You will become more confident and win. But what about the world out there? The film introduces some former high school debaters who have done well in their fields, such as Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, and Hillary Clinton. Unspoken but inevitable is the question of how women fare in the similarly male-dominated world of filmmaking, where Small has persistently made brilliant documentaries for 25 years but has yet to receive proper recognition.

As film critic Gerald Peary told me, “It could very well be argued that Lucia is the most important documentary filmmaker in New England in the last twenty years, and certainly challenges the provincials of Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris and other male filmmakers. All four of her documentaries hit the mark.”

A scene from the film by Lucia Small woman talk.

As shown in woman talk, an area where girls and women invariably beat boys is teamwork. Collaborating with other filmmakers on their projects has been a hallmark of Small’s career. Films she has contributed to include Amy Geller and Gerald Peary’s The rabbi goes west (2019), Fiona Turners eat up (2018), Brittany Huckabees After fire (2016), Gerald Pearys Archie’s Betty (2015) and Lyda Kuths love and other fears (2010).

This does not include all of the friends she has made and supported over the years. As Peary puts it in his Facebook tribute: “Friends? Nobody had so many people who mattered to her and who loved her in return. An incredible number of friends!”


Peter Keough writes on film and other subjects and has contributed to numerous publications. He was the film editor Boston Phoenix from 1989 until its end in 2013 and has most recently edited three books on film For Children of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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