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Cinéma Vérité

When your daughter wants nothing more than to be a filmmaker, what can you do to help her succeed? For starters, you can cast yourself in the starring and supporting roles

My daughter Caroline graduated from college into the worst job market in recent memory. A premed major to start, halfway through her senior year she found her true passion when she took a film class. Now she wants to make movies, preferably funny ones.

The odds of this happening are about a million to one, of course—so how to improve them? That was her first question upon arriving home with a vanload of filthy clothes and a job search staring her in the face. The long-term career question was temporarily shelved as Caroline followed her peers to the local Caribou Coffee looking for a short-term livelihood. She tried the hardware store next, then advertised for dog-walking gigs and landed one. By the end of June, she was deep into her credit line and desperate.

“Why not work for me?” I suggested.

Caroline and I are friends. We talk frankly with each other.

“No,” she replied.

“What do you have to lose?” I asked.

“Everything,” she said.

“Well, think about it,” I said.

The job I had in mind seemed tailor-made for Caroline. I write a newspaper column for gardeners that preaches the gospel of gardening on a wing and a prayer. It’s about empowerment and learning from your mistakes. This same impulse was at the heart of my invitation to my daughter to join the business, such as it is. I needed a filmmaker to produce short gardening videos.

A week later, my daughter was following me around the garden with a brand-new Canon 2000X in her hand and a scowl on her face. Caroline has zero interest in plants. Gardening was a childhood chore. “I’ll wash the car, anything!” she’d plead whenever I asked for help outside.

My co-star in these videos is a carpenter named Lynn. He provides the power tools and lifts things I can’t. Most days Lynn brings along his nephew, Steve, whom he helped raise and thinks of as a son. Steve is Lynn’s apprentice. He’s not much older than Caroline, but he is already supporting a family of five.

Over the summer, Caroline filmed the three of us hard at work building a waterfall out of a basalt boulder with a hole drilled through its middle, laying flagstones over a cement walk, and so on. In late November, we ventured back outside to shoot Lynn and his brother Ray building a stone stairway in a plastic tent heated with propane. They kept the mortar warm with a blowtorch. Later, when I mentioned that our footage reminded me of the film Fargo, Caroline said, “Yeah, Mom.” Translation: You and I are a far cry from the Coen brothers. Laurel and Hardy maybe.

This past winter, we decamped to my attic office where we work back to back, me on my antique Apple laptop and she on the fancy new iMac with its 27-inch screen and 2 terrabyte external hard drive. She spins movies out of some pretty raw footage. And something in her body language—Caroline isn’t a talker—tells me she’s beginning to like her first job that isn’t answering phones, cleaning dog cages, or babysitting.

My daughter and I have discovered that our talents and temperaments are well-matched because we’re opposites. She’s a skeptic and considers me borderline delusional. She is a perfectionist, while I am usually planning the next project before the cement is dry on the last one. She says I’m a control freak. I reply that collaboration requires taking criticism. I get as good as I give: There are days when I say “You’re fired,” and days when she says, “I quit.”

More important, I’m trying to teach my daughter that the enemy of happiness is standing still. When there are no jobs, take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way to do something you care about, whether that means joining the Peace Corps or working for your mother. Who else (besides Mom) is going to underwrite all that computer gear and give you free access to the laundry room?

To those well-intentioned types who suggest to me that my daughter ought to make her own way, I suggest they explain to me family farming, tribal culture, the medieval guild system, Marilyn Nelson Carlson, and Sophia Coppola. I tell them about Lynn, who is training Steve in hopes that his surrogate son will eventually take over the heavy lifting —as well as his Rolodex.

I am delighted to offer Caroline an excuse to spend her days making movies instead of mocha lattes. I’m proud to give her a roof over her head and a small paycheck as she builds something she can take into the real world in lieu of a resumé packed with internships. For now there’s just the one internship. She calls it indentured servitude. So what? We’re making the best of a bad job market and some pretty funny movies.

Bonnie Blodgett publishes The Garden Letter. Her book Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing—and Discovering—the Primal Sense will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June.


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