July 2015's Feature Film
States of Grace
A Film by Mark Lipman and Helen S. Cohen
Winner of multiple audience awards, States of Grace intimately captures the profound transformation of a revered physician and her family in the wake of a life- changing accident. For Dr. Grace Dammann, a pioneering AIDS specialist who was honored by the Dalai Lama, a routine commute across the Golden Gate Bridge turned tragic when another driver crashed head on into her car. After seven weeks in a coma and a dozen surgeries, Grace miraculously awakened with her cognitive abilities intact, though her body was left shattered. States of Grace follows her return home to the Buddhist community where she and her partner Nancy “Fu” Schroeder live with their teenage daughter Sabrina, who was born with cerebral palsy.
Family dynamics are turned upside down as each of them must negotiate new roles and responsibilities. As the only able-bodied person in their household, Fu becomes the primary caregiver to Grace while also taking on a more active role as parent. Grace, meanwhile, must reconcile her joy at still being alive with the frustration of being so dependent on others. With dry humor and brave candor, the three of them slowly recalibrate their lives together and apart.
Through verité footage and interviews with doctors, family, and friends, the film paints an inspiring portrait of devotion and trust as it delicately documents one woman’s fight to reinvent herself.
States of Grace is a labor of love that emerged from a desire to witness and document a friend’s remarkable journey following a tragic, life-altering event. Dr. Grace Dammann, the primary subject of the film, is a dear, longtime friend. Our daughters, now young women, had been buddies as toddlers, and we maintained a close friendship during the years that followed.
We received the devastating news that Grace had been in a head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge while we were traveling overseas in May 2008. We returned home to the frenzy and panic at the trauma hospital, where Grace’s large circle of friends and family kept vigil. Would Grace live? If she survived, would she have any brain function? What would her quality of life be like? How would she, along with her family and community, face the daunting unknowns that lay ahead? These questions consumed us all for the many weeks she was in a coma. We waited and fretted while the doctors performed surgery after surgery attempting to mend her shattered body.
The idea of making a film about Grace didn’t surface until after she regained consciousness, nearly seven weeks after the accident. To everyone’s shock, Grace awoke on the Fourth of July singing “You Are My Sunshine” and asking philosophical questions, indicating that her mental faculties were miraculously intact. Coincidentally, we had taken her daughter, Sabrina, to the Marin County Fair that day. As we walked around the dusty fairgrounds, Sabrina—who had been in the car with Grace and survived the accident with only minor injuries—brought up the idea of making a movie about her mom.
At that time, the trauma of the accident was still too painful and Grace’s future still too uncertain for us to seriously contemplate filming. But as the weeks and months unfolded, Grace’s recovery and spirit continually amazed and inspired us. We began to think that Sabrina’s idea held real promise. As seasoned producers of social issue and educational documentaries, we were ready to dig into a more artistic project and eager to create a verité film that followed a deeply personal story over time. Mark was also itching to move out of the editing room and pick up his camera again, getting back to his love of cinematography.
In 2009, near the end of thirteen months in residential rehabilitation hospitals, Grace was released for an afternoon to celebrate Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday at a nearby Chinese restaurant. We videotaped the party as a trial run and were completely captivated by the experience; in our bones, we knew her homecoming and recovery would be a remarkable journey to follow. When Grace left the hospital for good a week later, we were there with our camera to start shooting in earnest, never imagining this film would become such a passionate, consuming project for us for the next five years.
“Brave, refreshingly unsentimental. . . . A journey that directors Helen Cohen and Mark Lipman chart in an unflinching yet sensitive way.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
“An amazing film that poetically captures the many layers of triumph and struggle experienced by both patients and caregivers. Remarkable in its honesty, surprising in its humor, and gripping in its ability to take viewers to unexpected places.”
–Robert Saper, MD, MPH, associate professor of family medicine, Boston University School of Medicine
“As relevant for people living with disabilities as it is for people facing end-of-life issues—and for anyone who has ever taken on the role of caregiver. A beautifully honest movie that neither pities nor panders, it reminds us how much we are capable of when we need to be. Watching it made me revisit what is essential about being human.”
–BJ Miller, MD, executive director, Zen Hospice Project
“Not a perfect family, and certainly not your typical one, but somehow they make sense together. I feel privileged to have watched their journey. I recommend you do the same.”
–Daniela Costa, AfterEllen.com
Produced & Directed by Mark Lipman and Helen S. Cohen
Starring Dr. Grace Dammann
Music by Laura Karpman