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    Out SF Filmmakers Compete for Another Oscar with End Game

    At the Academy Awards this year, there are a number of LGBTQ-themed features and performances in competition.

    In the Best Picture category, Green Book, The Favorite, A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody all feature queer characters. Prognosticators, however, are expecting Roma to win.

    Olivia Colman and Melissa McCarthy were nominated in the Best Actress category for playing lesbians in The Favorite and Can You Ever Forgive Me? respectively (though Glenn Close is expected to win for her role in The Wife). Meanwhile Rami Malek is favored to win Best Actor for his performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

    In the Supporting Actress category, both Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone were nominated for their Sapphic parts in The Favorite, while Mahershala Ali is predicted to win Best Supporting Actor for playing the gay Don Shirley in Green Book—unless Richard E. Grant, nominated for his turn as the gay Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, pulls an upset.

    Even a Live Action short film nominee, Marguerite, depicts a lesbian caregiver and her relationship with an aging female patient. The film is a favorite to win in its category.

    One category where two Bay Area gay men are nominated is the Best Documentary Short. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have previously won an Oscar for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt—Epstein also won one for the documentary feature The Times of Harvey Milk—are competing this year with End Game.

    This life-affirming film, set in San Francisco, is available on Netflix. It depicts the doctors and patients at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center and the Zen Hospice Project guest house to examine end of life and related palliative care issues. This intimate documentary profiles a handful of people who work in this industry—Zen Hospice doctor B.J. Miller is a rock star—as well as the process of making decisions about end of life care and treatment while emphasizing that dying is a part of life.

    In a recent interview, Epstein and Friedman spoke about their inspiring film.

    Gary M. Kramer: How did you come to make a film on this subject?

    Rob Epstein: We’ve taken on the subject before with Common Threads, where the issue was in the midst of a crisis when we personally lost many dear, close friends. We saw it as an opportunity to revisit the topic in a more matter-of-fact, everyday way, rather than in a crisis. We came upon these palliative care practices and hospices and had the opportunity to shadow them. We were impressed with what they can do for people faced with serious illness and having to make decisions about quality of life.

    Gary M. Kramer: What can you say about the access you had to patients, doctors, families and caregivers, as well as to your approach toward filming them?

    Jeffrey Friedman: This film is the first really almost purely observational film we’ve done. There is only one interview, B.J. Miller, who provides heart and context for what we are seeing. We were filming people who were open to being filmed. These were our first encounters with them and being in the extreme situation they were in and agreeing to be filmed gave us a great opportunity to know people at their most vulnerable.

    Gary M. Kramer: What criteria did you use to find the stories you did? 

    Rob Epstein: Other than the practitioners, we didn’t know what stories we’d find. It was the whim and mercy of our production schedule. We spent a long time shadowing the practitioners and getting a rhythm of what they do day in and day out, but once we walked into a room, we didn’t know whom we were meeting. Once we met the patients, we determined which ones we’d be following. That was arbitrary. A few died quickly, so we didn’t have time to follow them after the first or second encounter. One patient’s mother agreed to participate because she valued the palliative care team and the help her daughter was getting and saw the opportunity to share that with the world.

    Jeffrey Friedman: It was really the interactions between the patients and hospice residents and their families and caregivers that we were interested in capturing. There was so much empathetic give and take in those interactions that it made a difficult situation (easier) and gave it depth and beauty.

    Gary M. Kramer: B.J. Miller’s comments about having a relationship with death are particularly affecting. How did you develop his profile in the film?

    Rob Epstein: I like what he says: Dying is not a medical issue, it’s a human issue. That’s what he reminds us of in his work. In the end, it’s about compassion, empathy, kindness, human touch; and it comes down to the best of our human attributes.

    Jeffrey Friedman: It’s about seeing clearly what actually is, and accepting it, and dealing with it; not looking away, or pushing away suffering or any unpleasant thing you don’t want to deal with.

    Gary M. Kramer: Many people may be uncomfortable watching End Game, but it is life affirming. How do you get people to watch your short?

    Rob Epstein: It’s hard. When you say what the film is about, people are understandably resistant. It’s the ultimate existential dilemma. We’re here, then we’re not here. But it is part of life. Who wants to think about it? But being around the subjects in the film, it makes it less taboo. When people do see the film, it’s not a depressing film, even though it can be hard to watch. It shows the best of human nature in the hardest moment, and that’s inspiring.

    Jeffrey Friedman: Going into the hospice the first time, we had a sense of trepidation. But there was such an overwhelming feeling of warmth, caring, and love that in a very short time, I didn’t want to leave. It was very beautiful being there in spite of, or because of, what was happening there. At some point we started to think of it as a love story—a very sad love story—but a story about love and caring and empathy expressed in their most distilled form. It’s something we should be thinking about as a culture—how we want our lives to play out in the end—if we want to have any control about our last days.

    Gary M. Kramer: What are your thoughts about being nominated (again) for the Oscars?

    Rob Epstein: It’s been 30 years since our last nomination. It’s a nice surprise, and at this point the nominations happen in the documentary branch, so it’s recognition from our peers, and that’s a great honor.

    Jeffrey Friedman: It helps get the film out to a wider audience. The more folks see it there’s a better chance this necessary conversation will happen.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer