Film

Sunset Filmmaker Captures Reality of Life’s End

By Noma Faingold

Despite wearing all black, Cameron Mullenneaux does not really look like the typical patron of the independent coffee shop, Flywheel, on the outskirts of the Haight. The industrial space is filled with bicyclists, skateboarders and people with gear – laptops, headphones and backpacks – who prefer shots of espresso to frothy, sweet beverages.

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Cameron Mullenneaux. Photos by Noma Faingold.

The upbeat 33 year old, originally from Fairfield, Iowa, is five months pregnant. Last June, she  married Emanuel Mullenneaux, with whom she grew up. Her interests are as a documentary filmmaker are not what you’d expect. She went to extraordinary lengths to complete her feature debut, “Exit Music,” an intimate, honest look at a young man with cystic fibrosis in his last year of life.

“Exit Music” is being screened Feb. 3 and 5 at SF Indiefest. It is an unsentimental look at a life of suffering, yet a life worth living. 

“I wanted to make a film that captured the true essence of what it’s like to approach your end of life and also care for someone you love at the end of life,” says Mullenneaux, who was a hospice volunteer as an undergrad and a midwife’s assistant in Bali when she was 19 years old.

“I’ve always been a curious person about mortality and what we are each doing on this planet,” says Mullenneaux. “It was no accident that I gravitated to those. There are a lot of parallels between birth and death.” 

The project began while she was finishing her masters degree in documentary film at Wake Forest in North Carolina. She did some outreach to the medical community in Vermont, one of four states to legalize physician-aided dying. The only response was from Dr. Ursula McVeigh, who was treating Ethan Rice of Plattsburgh, New York, an idiosyncratic artist (music and animation) who, at 28, had survived much longer than most patients with cerebral palsy, an incurable, life-threatening disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system.

The film covers Rice’s final year. The filmmaker and subject were both 28 at the time. It was just Mullenneaux and her camera. She had no crew and little funding. From the first meeting, Mullenneaux was honest with Ethan and his working-class parents, Ed and Edith. 

“I wanted to tell the story in the most powerful way, but I didn’t have an agenda,” she said. “It would have been easy to sensationalize or sentimentalize the story. But I’d rather help people tell their own stories, on their own terms. Just sit back and see where it leads.”

With each visit, she was able to view the family dynamics and learn its layered history through home movies shot by Ed, numerous stop-action animation shorts by Ethan, as well as listening to the music he composed, which became the “Exit Music” soundtrack. 

“I told Ethan that this is a collaboration,” she says. “This is your film, too.”

Ethan had deteriorated significantly during the year of filming. Breathing on his own without significant oxygen was unsustainable. He made the decision. The family invited Mullenneaux to be there as he died at home. 

“It was just their immediate family and me. I had built such a strong and loving relationship with them that they felt I should be there. They knew I was there as a friend and not a filmmaker.”

Much of the footage in the scene was shot by Ed, who, as a stay-at-home dad, had an extremely close relationship with Ethan. 

“Ed may have felt more comfortable behind the camera, as part of his own process. He had followed and filmed Ethan his whole life,” says Mullenneaux. “He was filming the end of his and Ethan’s story.”

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Cameron Mullenneaux.

What brought Sunset District resident Mullenneaux to San Francisco was the film community. She is in her second year as an artist in residence at SFFilm (previously known as the San Francisco Film Society). Locally based Independent Television Service (ITVS), public television’s funding arm, helped her land a seasoned producer and editor during post production. PBS will air “Exit Music” this spring.

The film had its world premiere at the Hot Docs International Festival in Toronto last April. “Exit Music” has played the festival circuit and has received a positive response from critics and audiences. The medical community has also taken notice. 

“Professionals who are seeing the film have said everybody that works in the medical field needs to see this film,” says Mullenneaux. “They have never seen something so spot on as to what it’s really like to be a family member of someone who is dying. It just doesn’t hold back anything.”

“Exit Music” will be screened at SF Indiefest at the Roxie Theatre, Feb. 3, 2:45 p.m. and Feb. 5, 7 p.m. Tickets at http://www.sfindie.com.

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