Throughout her Oscar-winning career, documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff explored subjects that were deeply personal to her.
In “Choosing Children” (1984), she profiled same-sex couples raising children together. With “It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School” (1996) she promoted educating young children about gays. And through several more films over the past two decades, Chasnoff worked to raise public awareness of the lives and struggles of LGBTQ Americans like her and many of her closest friends.
Her latest film is by far her most personal. “Prognosis: Notes on Living,” follows Chasnoff, a longtime San Francisco resident, through the two years following her stage four metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. She died at the age of 60 in 2017.
The 82-minute film, which is in the local spotlight at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, will be screened in person at the Castro Theater on July 25 at noon, with a Q&A for the filmmakers. The film will also be available for online streaming during the festival from July 22 to Aug 1.
“Documentary filmmaking has been a means for me to be politically active…so this is very different for me to make a movie where I’m the main character,” Chasnoff says in the beginning of “Prognosis.” She wonders: is it fair to drag her family and friends into such an intimate and emotionally charged project? “I have something in my gut that says this might be worth it, not just for me but for many, many other people.”
Chasnoff, known to her friends as Chas, was “both integrally involved and letting go” of the film while it was being made, producer and friend Joan Lefkowitz said. “The partnership was rich and full and hard and loving,” she told J. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I’m so glad it’s over.” (Lefkowitz edited Chasnoff’s short documentary “Deadly Deception,” about General Electric’s involvement in making nuclear weapons, which won an Academy Award in 1991.)
A small team of collaborators — including Lefkowitz and Nancy Otto, Chasnoff’s wife and partner for 17 years — filmed more than 200 hours of footage of Chasnoff, beginning shortly after she received her diagnosis. They filmed her meeting with UCSF doctors and having procedures performed (with the approval of UCSF’s Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center), during which her chemotherapy-thinned hair was shaved by her son, Oscar (“You guys, it’s Uncle Fester ”, she jokes about her new look), tending her succulent garden at home and dancing at her 60th birthday party.
Kate Stilley Steiner, the film’s co-director and one of the filmmakers, said she felt tension between her dual roles of filmmaker and friend. “There were a lot of moments when I was filming something and I realized what we were hearing wasn’t good news,” she said. In those moments, she realized “that my job was basically to keep the camera rolling and not have an emotional reaction to what was happening.”
Rabbi Stacy Friedman of the Rodef Sholom congregation in San Rafael appears in the documentary, singing and praying about Chasnoff as she slowly dies. Friedman called Chasnoff, who was her cousin, “bravely honest” and “an instigator of change and progress.”
Debra Chasnoff in “Prognosis: Notes on Life.”
“Ultimately, the film she, Nancy and the extraordinary team created is an amazing and unique gift to all of us, one that will change the way we die and also affect how we live,” she wrote in an email. email to J. (Friedman revealed she was diagnosed with breast cancer the same day Chasnoff died.)
Chasnoff was “very creative” in her practice of Judaism, which she mixed with elements of Buddhism, Lefkowitz said. Every year she collected her own Passover Haggadah from different sources, and “everyone looked forward to it”. In a clip that didn’t make the final cut of the film, but that Stilley Steiner shared with J., Chasnoff is seen assembling a haggadah of pages scattered across the floor of her office. “I always feel the need to look for something better,” she explains to Otto, who films the scene.
When asked if the “Prognosis” team had any reservations about shooting scenes of Chasnoff struggling to breathe on her deathbed (and, ultimately, her lifeless body), Stilley Steiner replied: “From the very beginning, everyone was working on it. I think that makes it a great movie. If you’re not willing to go all the way, that negates the movie itself.”
Otto, a nonprofit consultant and glass installation artist now living in Sonoma County, appears throughout “Prognosis.” She said she hopes the documentary will help viewers feel more comfortable having conversations with loved ones about mortality. The SF-based Koret Foundation is sponsoring the development of a discussion guide around the film in conjunction with the Palliative Care Unit of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
“It’s a great feeling to feel that we have completed Chas’ legacy,” she said. “This was something lasting that she wanted to give.”