By Noma Faingold
Richard Lui admits that he never would have made his directorial debut were it not for his own experience helping to take care of his father, Stephen, 87, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years ago. “Sky Blossom: Diaries of the Next Greatest Generation” is a heart-wrenching yet uplifting documentary focusing on young caregivers looking after a family member.
As soon as the award-winning weekend anchor at MSNBC learned that his father was entering the challenging journey so many families face, the native San Franciscan did not hesitate to step in and help his mother, Rose, and other family members care for his father in practical and tender ways.
“I didn’t want to become a filmmaker,” Lui said. “I thank my father for stretching me creatively.”
Lui, 53, grew up in the Richmond District.
“I was doing speaking engagements to get the word out about Alzheimer’s,” he said. “But film is a major cultural drive. Film gets into the bloodstream.”
Rather than focus on his own family’s story, “Sky Blossom” profiles five American families with military ties. They are a diverse bunch – ethnically and geographically – but they have more in common than what separates them. It is about the daily struggles and sacrifices of teenage and 20-something family members who take on the responsibilities of being a caregiver to a parent or grandparent with disabilities. Stories like those of a father, Chaz Allen, a veteran who is a double amputee with a fused arm, and another father, Brian Alvarado, who is a former Marine sergeant with throat cancer, likely contracted while disposing of plastics and chemicals in burn pits while serving in Iraq.
The lives of these families with limited financial resources are chronicled over a three-year period. The young caregivers are among the 24.5 million who are essentially front-line health care workers within their own households. Among those caregivers are 1.3 million teens and children.
“These five students represent how to not live in an unselfish way,” Lui said.
When Lui’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he worked out an arrangement with MSNBC to be a weekend anchor, so that he could visit his parents every week. In the early stages of Stephen’s illness, Lui’s parents moved into the street-level garage apartment created in their Richmond District home.
The family made the best of the sobering developments. Lui would frequently take neighborhood walks with his father, making sure to follow the same route each time to include a stop at the donut shop to get an apple fritter, strolling past the Alexandria Theatre and then getting a burrito at Gordo’s.
“That was our thing,” Lui said.
The family found humor and pathos in Stephen’s changing behaviors, such as him wanting to take a shower every 30 minutes because he forgot he just took one.
“It was enjoyable how positive and open he became. He would laugh all the time. He would hug and kiss me often and show a lot of love to the family,” Lui said.
More than two years ago, as the disease progressed, the family moved Stephen into a nearby nursing home. COVID restrictions have made it harder to visit, but Lui returns to San Francisco as often as possible, while following quarantine guidelines. His 86-year-old mother still lives in the garage apartment.
The title of the film, “Sky Blossom,” is taken from a saying from World War II. Troops used to look up and say “Here come the sky blossoms” when they saw paratroopers coming to their aid. The film has high-powered backing, including media personality Montel Williams and actor David Hyde Pierce serving as executive producers. Much of the skilled crew worked pro bono because they had personal experience caring for family members and wanted to see these difficult, yet relatable, stories told about people who are rarely seen. While the production has a seamless quality, it doesn’t shy away from showing raw, painful, personal moments.
The world premiere was held on Veteran’s Day at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. last year. The parking lot was converted into a drive-in theater. Other festival screenings followed, as did “Sky Blossom” qualifying for the 2021 Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category. In January, industry publication Variety listed the film among its 25 Oscar contenders.
Lui said a common audience response to “Sky Blossom” is: “I cried but I was encouraged.”
“It changes the way people look at their kids. It changed the way I look at kids.”
“Sky Blossom: Diaries of the Next Greatest Generation” will screen virtually at the 2021 SF IndieFest, Feb. 4-21. For tickets, go to sfindie.com. For more information about a national broadcast date and streaming platforms, go to www.skyblossom.com.