Editor’s note: “With Dad” will premiere on GBH, Boston’s PBS station, on Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. The film is available to stream at https://www.wgbh.org/with-dad.
Clark Screen Studies Professor Soren Sorensen was seeking a topic for his master’s thesis when he asked colleague Stephen DiRado if he’d be interested in sitting for an interview. Sorensen thought DiRado’s photographic journal depicting his father Gene’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease might make a compelling short-subject documentary.
“I responded to Stephen’s work viscerally,” says Sorensen, whose earlier documentary, “My Father’s Vietnam,” revisited his own father’s wartime experiences. “The decline and death of Stephen’s dad was such a powerful story, and the meticulous documentation of it made this an ideal project.”
Sorensen’s film “With Dad” (sharing the name with DiRado’s book) won over juries and audiences t a host of film festivals in 2020, including the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the St. Louis International Film Festival, and the Massachuse s Independent Film Festival, where it won Best Documentary. This past March, the film won two awards — for Best Short Documentary and Best Editing — at the 2021 Red Dirt Film Festival in Stillwater, Oklahoma. This June, “With Dad,” an official selection of the New York Independent Film Festival, was screened at the Producer‘s Club.
As of this writing, Sorensen is planning acquisition deals with several PBS stations, including WGBH in Boston, which is holding a World Alzheimer’s Month broadcast premiere this September.
For the film, DiRado was interviewed on camera over the course of two days in the summer of 2018, offering a firsthand account of the pain and process of capturing his father’s final years through photos. His testimony was vivid in its own right, but when DiRado revealed that his brother, Chris, had videotaped his interactions with Gene for much of that time, Sorensen knew he had something truly special.
“We had all thiscontemporaneous footage that Chris had shot, and it would have been a sin to leave it out,” Sorensen recalls.
A work-in-progress version of “With Dad” debuted to a standing-room-only audience at Dana Commons last February, just prior to the COVID outbreak. Before the screening, a box of tissues was passed around the room in anticipation of the emotional response it would provoke. The film was indeed met with tears, but also with laughter at some of DiRado’s recollections — and with applause from the crowd, a harbinger of its future success with festival audiences.
“It’s odd timing for a subject like this right now,” Sorensen says. “Under this dark cloud of COVID, where people are suffering in so many ways, I knew a film like this would not be everyone’s cup of tea. But as we made it into some festivals, there was real interest, which I find incredibly moving and gratifying. Stephen and I are both so grateful for the response so far.”