Kathy Leichter found solace through the filmmaking process as she created a documentary about her bipolar mother's suicide
By Gabrielle Alfiero
In February of 1995, when documentary filmmaker Kathy Leichter was 28, she got a phone call from her dad, New York State Senator Franz Leichter, and promptly hung up on him.
He called because her mother, Nina Leichter, 63, who had long suffered from bipolar disorder, had committed suicide by jumping from the kitchen window of their 11th-story apartment on Riverside Drive.
"No," was all Leichter said before hanging up.
Nine years later, Leichter was living with her father in her childhood apartment, where her mother carried out her last days. She was making a film about her mother, but was hardly able to look at photographs of her.
"I couldn't even say that my mother had died by suicide when I started making the film," Leichter, now 47, said. "Here I am now, the film's finished nine years later, and I'm telling hundreds of people - strangers - that this happened to me and this happened to her, and I use the word suicide."
Released last April, almost 20 years after Nina Leichter's death, "Here One Day" offers an intimate glimpse into her happiest moments with her family, and her most harrowing bouts of depression as she coped with bipolar disorder, an illness that affects more than six million people in the United States. The film has screened at festivals, including DOC NYC, The Independent Film Festival Boston, and, most recently at the Jewish Community Center at 334 Amsterdam Avenues on Sunday, March 9 as part of the ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival.
The film includes intimate interviews with Leichter's father, her brother, Josh, and her mother's family and friends. But she kept many of the painful parts of filmmaking - and grieving - at a distance. Reluctant to clean out her mother's belongings, Leichter and her father kept Nina's office intact for four years after her death.
"Going through her stuff was just so incredibly emotional, saying goodbye over and over again," Leichter said.
When she did sort through her mother's closets and drawers, she found a bright dress with geometric patterns, old Beatles records, member card for a mood disorders support group. Pill bottles not yet empty. But when she stumbled upon a box of audio tapes her mother used to record an audio diary, she didn't listen to them. She had already produced a rough cut of the film before she told her editor, Pola Rapaport, that the tapes existed.
"She practically fell over in her chair," Leichter said, recalling Rapaport's reaction. "There's eight to ten hours of audio tapes from the dead woman we're making the film about, and here she is talking to us. And I hadn't really said, 'Oh by the way, I have these tapes.' I was like a horse backing into the stall about listening to them."
She finally put on her headphones and listened to each tape, again and again. After nine years of production and editing, Leichter and Rapaport spent another four to five months re-cutting the film to include Nina's voice, an addition that Leichter admits "completely transformed the film." In the finished cut, Nina sings, cries, critiques her medication, and worries about the burden of her illness on her family.
"It was really quite wonderful to have the tapes," Leichter said. "Instead of having a film where five people talked about her, she could actually speak for herself and have her own say."
Through interviews, old home video footage, photographs and, of course, Nina's own voice, the portrait Leichter painted of her mother shows Nina's complexities and intelligence, her ability to nurture along with her intense need to be nurtured by others, including her young children.
"It really shows the many facets of people who have bipolar disorder, and certainly Nina," said Franz Leichter, 83, who represented the 30th District in Manhattan and the Bronx until his retirement from the State Senate in 1998. "She had some wonderful qualities and wonderful achievements."
Leichter, now 45 with two young children of her own, said that grieving and healing from her mother's sudden death was an unintended offshoot of the filmmaking process, but her goals for "Here One Day" don't end with her own catharsis. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in four adults in the United States experience a form of mental illness. Leichter hopes the film will expose the effects bipolar disorder and suicide have on families, and prove to those coping with the illness that they are not alone in their fights.
"All of us probably know someone who has died by suicide, if not loved someone who has died by suicide," Leichter said. "It's a very common experience that people aren't talking about."
To find information on screenings or to purchase or stream the film, visit hereoneday.com.
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