Short film addresses dementia caregiving and much more

Michael Gross appears in a scene from “Our Father.”
Michael Gross appears in a scene from “Our Father.” Our Father Productions

In the simplest description, the film “Our Father” is about a man in late-stage dementia and his caregivers.

But the tag line on its poster – “A lifetime of lies shattered in a moment of clarity” – suggests much more.

It’s about misogyny, racism, spousal abuse.

It’s about what can happen when someone is forced to be who he is not.

It’s about healing and forgiveness.

And it’s about 22 minutes long.

Linda Palmer, L.A.-based writer, director and producer of the short film, acknowledges that she’s packed a lot into it. “The script is only 19 pages, and I think that it’s pretty compact. Everyone who sees it says it’s very intense and doesn’t lighten up,” she said of the work, which will be screened twice June 20 in Calaveras County to benefit the Northern California Alzheimer’s Association.

Palmer and four cast members will be at the screenings, including “Family Ties” actor Michael Gross, who has the title role. While decades removed from the beloved 1982-89 TV series that launched the career of Michael J. Fox, the still-bearded Gross is immediately recognizable as the man who played dad Steven Keaton. But the physical resemblance is all the two characters share. In “Our Father,” his estranged character hasn’t seen his family in 20 years, until his dementia necessitates care in his son’s household.

The multiple award-winning film is based on Palmer’s family story. She was living in another state when her father returned to his family’s life, and so was not involved in the day-to-day of his care, or there for the “moment of clarity” that is the focus of the film.

But that moment – and sharing the story of it – has helped the family come to terms “with why he had been absent so long, and really started to heal our family, particularly our mom, who had been abused and has complete forgiveness for him,” Palmer said.

What Gross’ character reveals to his son is that he’s lived his life as a closeted gay man.

Her father realized his sexual orientation “during a time when that was absolutely forbidden,” Palmer said. “His parents put him in a mental institution to shock the gay out of him. … He married our mom a year after he got out.”

That radical treatment changed him drastically. “He turned into a monster, a horrible person, a racist, a bigot,” she said.

She hopes viewers will see “Our Father” as a story about more than dementia and sexual orientation. She wants to convey the importance of letting people be “their authentic self.” When people aren’t allowed to be themselves, they become other people, she said.

“The biggest thing I’d hope for is that people can find acceptance for other people in their lives, an understanding,” Palmer said.

If her father hadn’t been institutionalized and made to live a lie, “we (his children) wouldn’t be here,” but perhaps he would have had a happier life, she said.

Local screening

The 2014 film has been riding the festival circuit and racked up a number of awards, including best lead actor, supporting actor, director and score at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Gross also won for best actor at the Los Angeles Movie Awards and the Laughlin International Film Festival. “Our Father” also was an official selection – 22 accepted from 500 submissions – of the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes.

“I made the movie as a calling card, a way to show people my abilities as a director,” Palmer said. But as much as the film festival acceptance and honors mean, she also cares about simply getting the movie in front of as many eyes as possible and is considering offering it for inexpensive streaming on her website.

“The people most interested in our film are caregivers, because it’s real, it’s not sugar-coated,” she said. In the campaign to raise money to make “Our Father,” about 95 percent, she estimates, came from caregivers of people with dementia or people who have had experiences with gay relatives.

Gross could relate, too, and brought his own experiences to the set, Palmer said. “He found out about the film and his manager submitted him (for the part),” she said. “He felt very compelled by it.” He and his wife cared for his mother-in-law, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, for 10 years in their home.

One of the executive producers of “Our Father,” Calaveras County resident Rae Davis also was drawn to the film in part by her personal experience. She lost her mother-in-law and her former father-in-law to the disease.

Davis met Palmer through a mutual actress friend. “I came in on the back end with ‘Our Father,’” she said. “They’d finished filming the year before. I saw it, and it was such an impressive short film that I really wanted to get involved.”

Davis explained that “executive producer is a fancy title for financial backer. You can come in post-production because there are always more costs” in marketing and distributing the film getting it to festivals, etc.

Davis and her husband, Mark, also an executive producer, felt it was important to bring the short to Calaveras County and to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association.

In addition to Gross and Palmer, cast members Michael Worth, Julia Silverman and Aaron Stall also will attend the screenings.

“Having cast at a screening, I think it’s always a special experience when you can find out what happens in the filmmaking, behind the scenes,” Palmer said. “It’s really nice that Michael Gross is coming up. He’s such a nice man. Everybody on it is wonderful – I think people will be very impressed.”

Davis calls Palmer’s film “breathtaking … really incredible,” and added about Gross: “People will be stunned to see this performance by him.”

Deke Farrow: (209) 578-2327

‘Our Father’ screenings

The film will be shown at two events June 20 in Calaveras County.

Matinee: 1 p.m. at Bret Harte Theatre, 323 S. Main St., Angels Camp. Screening will conclude with a Q&A with actors Michael Gross, Michael Worth, Julia Silverman and Aaron Stall and director Linda Palmer. Tickets are $15.

Evening: 7 p.m. at Ironstone Vineyards, 1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys. Event will begin with a red carpet walk and photo opportunity taken with the “Our Father” actors. Guests will receive “swag bags.” A Q&A with the cast and director will follow the screening. Tickets, $50, are limited to just 100 people, to allow for a more intimate affair with the actors and director.

Half of the proceeds from both screenings will go to the Northern California Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Funds are earmarked to help organizations in Calaveras County that either care for Alzheimer’s patients or help caregivers.

Tickets: To purchase, go to www.ourfatherproductions.com and click on the “Support” tab.