Filmmaker Kyle Henry isn’t interested in coming-of-age stories. The associate professor of radio/television/film has found that older adults boast more nuanced relationships, choices, and journeys. In his latest project, Traces of Time, Henry contemplates pandemic isolation by documenting the last six months of his mother’s life in a nursing facility in Rochester, New York. In turn, this self-examination explores her deferred dreams, the relationship she shared with her son, and the implications of our societal compulsion to record and post our personal histories.
Henry’s dive into his own family’s archive led him to ask questions about the industrial legacy of archiving, including the history of Rochester’s Eastman Kodak Company and the environmental ramifications of chemical processing, chip manufacturing, and digital data storage.
“What are the polluting byproducts of wanting to archive your life?” Henry asks. “I think it reveals something about the way human brains work, the way we want to have the difficult material remain unconscious.”
But in Henry’s work, the “difficult” rarely remains unmined. The last days of his mother’s life were spent in almost complete isolation, most likely precipitating her decline, and her dementia complicated their virtual check-ins. The film bravely recreates key moments in their relationship—even though the early-pandemic shutdown of on-campus filmmaking forced him to reimagine an acted scene as stop-motion animation using vintage Fisher-Price Little People toys.
As in most of Henry’s recent films, Northwestern student research assistants are playing integral production roles. For Traces of Time, each had the opportunity to weigh in on the film’s direction and content, even editing initial drafts of scenes. “I received the benefit of their creativity and objectivity,” he says.
In revealing dark corners of our lives and scrutinizing our obsession with mementos over memories and preservation at the expense of destruction, Henry’s work walks a line many Americans found themselves unwittingly treading this last year: Can some good come from all this?
“I think a lot of what we take away from this is the fragility of life,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to reevaluate and know that there are alternatives.”
Traces of Time is slated for release in early 2023.