Documenting family history: A Q&A with filmmaker Jessica Edwards

What would it be like to grow up with folk star parents?

For her first feature-length documentary, Stay Awhile, local filmmaker Jessica Edwards turned the lens on what she knew best: her own family.

I met Edwards over a decade ago when we both worked in the CHUM building at Queen and John. I was a nervous publicity intern for MuchMusic, and Jess was a powerhouse in sales and marketing, landing countless innovative sponsorship partnerships for all of CHUM’s specialty channels. Following that, she spearheaded the growth at MTV Canada, jumped ship to Alliance Atlantis, and then one day we met for coffee and she relayed how she was going to exit that world and focus on becoming a filmmaker.

I admired that she made the bold move while at the top of her game. It was a curious decision, a gutsy turn, but the decision to follow her instincts and passion has served her well.

Stay Awhile tells the story of the Bells (Edwards’ Mom & Dad) a 1970’s Canadian band that quickly became a household name, both at home and south of the border. The creative process of closely examining her parents’ past lives was an enlightening experience, but also a heavily emotional one. Jessica’s journey took her on an expansive search for family history, which led to much self-discovery.

SDTC: Was there something specific that triggered you into making this film? 

JE: I made two short films prior so this was not something I yearned to do for years and years. Though it took years to decide to do it. It was a very tough decision – to turn the camera on my family. There were a few triggers. I loved my parents’ stories about their musical endeavours and as I got older I became more curious to go deeper. I almost lost my mom and aunt to cancer and my father to a cardiac arrest, and being bedside at a hospital jolts you into wanting to make sure you truly listened to their stories and wisdom. And the final push was to write something true, something I could wrap my entire self around.

How did music shape your childhood?

In every way. Music was constantly around me. I grew up on the road with my two siblings seeing my parents actively pursuing what they love to do. We became pretty independent, meeting new people all the time. We had very little money but we never felt we had a lesser experience. I truly feel like I have a soundtrack to my life. We are all musical, even today our evenings end on sharing playlists and jamming. It’s a wonderful way to express and communicate.

What are some discoveries you’ve made since you first launched this project?

Launching something that is personal for public consumption is so challenging. Audiences may connect with it, or they may not and there is no way of controlling that. I realized after my first few screenings that though I wanted people to like the film, be moved or take something from it, ultimately it wasn’t the reason I made it. I made it because I felt I could make an honest film, and I could tell this story visually and let the music act as a narrative. I felt I could find my own original angle.

Did the making of Stay Awhile prompt the first-ever digital release? Or was it the other way around?

Sometimes it takes a grand gesture to achieve the result you are looking for.  There wasn’t a plan in place by the record label to re-release their music before the film but they certainly were very supportive when they heard about it and saw it.

What’s the most challenging aspect about making a film that is about your family?

So many things. A documentary really can write itself. You begin the journey of deciding your locations to set mood and tone, asking all the questions, digging up old footage and photos, then you realize you are in deep and you can’t predict the outcome. You can only hope to give it structure, flow and emotional beats. You have to be objective. Wearing both the filmmaker and daughter cap was absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done.  I knew I couldn’t skip over the tough stuff and I wasn’t going to silence anyone because that isn’t honest filmmaking. I just tried my very best to make this film with loving eyes.

What has been the most fun part of making Stay Awhile?

So many highs. Finding the archival footage of my very young parents. Seeing the band come together for this film. Receiving emails from strangers who remember their music and want to see the film. Getting into incredible film festivals after years of thinking it wasn’t going to happen. And right now, talking with you about the re-relase of my family’s music.

Got any advice for peeps who are considering a major career shift?

I just think it’s so important to challenge yourself. To try life from a different angle. I wanted to feel vulnerable and intimated again by something I wanted so badly which often leads to courage and overcoming odds. Such an important human experience.

Stay Awhile premieres at at Hot Docs on April 24th with a special live performance from The Bells. The film will also be released in Cineplex theatres on April 27th.

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