Written by Director Rick Minnich
What are the long-term effects of making a personal documentary? Deep emotional scars? Catharsis? Tremendous personal growth? Acceptance?
When I dived into making “Forgetting Dad” in 2005, this question never entered my mind. All I wanted was to find answers, some kind of hard and fast evidence that would explain why my father’s memories still hadn’t returned fifteen years after his mysterious case of amnesia began. The doctors who examined him during the first year of his amnesia, which began one week after a seemingly harmless car accident in 1990, concurred that his memory should return in one to two years, and that his life would get back to normal. But it never happened. Why?
I was determined to find the answer regardless of the cost. But I quickly faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: my father’s silence. After happily participating in the early stages of the film, he and his wife Tracy backed out, claiming they wanted to maintain their privacy. When I turned my camera on my relatives, my father hurled vicious accusations my way: I was spreading rumors in the family and turning everyone against him. My father had always been a very controlling person, and now he was infuriated at not having absolute control over what everyone was saying about him. As a filmmaker, I was simply doing my job and trying to leave no rock unturned. As a son, however, I felt like I was betraying the man who had given me the gift of life. No matter what I did, it was wrong in his eyes.
But time heals old wounds, or so it’s said. Five years after our last meeting at his mother’s memorial service in 2011, my father and I met again last October. I was eager to see him, and to clear the air between us. He suggested I fly into Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he had arranged for us to stay at a hotel for two nights before driving to his home in nearby Wyoming.
I don’t know who was more excited: him or me. My father fetched me from my room and gave me a big hug before we headed down to the breakfast room. His embrace gave me hope that this would be a healing visit. The next two days we spent going on long strolls along the Snake River, talking about everything under the sun except “Forgetting Dad.” It was still this huge unspoken barrier between us that neither of us dared to mention for fear of ruining the moment. But I hadn’t come all this way only to leave feeling he had successfully silenced me once again.
On the third day, we travelled to his home in Western Wyoming, where my father and his wife Tracy moved two years ago. They had traded in their old home in a remote mountainous corner of Oregon for a new home in a remote valley in Wyoming, where no one knew anything about them and “Old Richard,” as my father refers to the person he was before his amnesia began.
Still as private as ever and determined to not let anyone – not even a family member – get a glimpse into their daily lives – my father and Tracy arranged for me to stay at a nearby motel rather than in their spacious home. It felt like they were keeping me at bay, but I went along with it. I didn’t have a choice.
The next day, we went for a pleasant hike. I was glad to see my father could still navigate the hills fairly well despite his persistent equilibrium problems and the side effects of his recent mercury poisoning from a broken amalgam filling. It took months for the doctors to figure out what was causing the severe muscle loss in his legs. My father can spend hours talking about his various health issues, and this time was no exception. It all sounded bizarre, like more smoke and mirrors. Was he still trying to deflect my attention from his amnesia twenty-six years later? The rational, investigative filmmaker in me said yes, while the son in me said: Who cares? It feels great to be around him again after so many years of silence.
I had an early flight out of Idaho Falls, so my father arranged for the two of us to travel there the night before and stay at the same hotel where my trip had begun. “Old Richard” used to plan everything down to the last detail, and “New Richard” is no different.
We had time for one last walk before going to Dad’s favorite restaurant along the Snake River. It was the kind of fine dining experience the miserly “Old Richard” never indulged in, but which was commonplace in “New Richard’s” life, in which money is no longer an issue, but is also not discussed openly. I knew it was my last chance to bring up “Forgetting Dad,” and I didn’t want to leave without asking the one question that was burning inside me.
Eventually, I found a way in, and asked Dad if he had seen the film yet. Much to my surprise, he replied that he and Tracy had watched it a year ago, and that it was “no big deal.” He shrugged his shoulders to emphasize the point. A weight fell from my chest. During our ensuing conversation, I could sense a bit of fatherly pride that I had made a good film that has traveled around the world. Or maybe it was my father’s pride in himself for being the subject of this film. It didn’t matter. He had seen “Forgetting Dad” and was still talking to me. The film was no longer this unspeakable barrier between us, but rather something we could set down on the table in front of us and discuss.
Nearly six months have passed since this encounter and nearly eight years have passed since the world premiere of “Forgetting Dad” – plenty of time for me to reflect on what the whole experience was about. I am still asked many questions about the film, the most popular being: Do I believe my father’s amnesia? For years, I dodged this question by answering: Something in my father’s brain definitely changed, but I don’t know if he had any control over it. Meanwhile, I feel like through the amnesia, my father got what he always wanted: a carefree life far from civilization and free of financial worries and responsibilities thanks to his younger, adoring third wife Tracy and her bountiful inheritance. But there was a huge price to pay: tremendous sacrifices to his physical and mental health, and decades of estrangement from his “old” family. Do I resent his decision (if he had any control over it)? No, not anymore. Do I still love him? Yes. Would I trade places with him? Never in a million years.