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After Tragedy Struck, Kathryn Calder Found a New Voice

Musician and her mother battle ALS in 'A Matter of Time', playing at DOXA.

By Frederick Blichert 6 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Frederick Blichert is a Vancouver-based writer completing a practicum at The Tyee. He is a student at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism and writes for various film publications.

Victoria songstress Kathryn Calder faced her mother's ALS diagnosis with stunning compassion and creativity, a story told in A Matter of Time, playing at this year's DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

After learning the news, the indie rock musician moved back into her childhood home to become her mother's primary caregiver, set up a recording studio in the living room, and went to work on her debut solo album, Are You My Mother?

Known for her work with bands Immaculate Machine and the New Pornographers, it was a chance for Calder to look inward and create something fresh and personal.

And Calder was determined that her mother should hear the finished product before her death. The sad reality of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is that all cases are fatal.

A Matter of Time is part concert film, part family portrait, and part call to action. It launches us in the world of Canadian indie rock, with the New Pornographers serving as an intersection point for bands that have helped define the country's music industry for the last decade. We're treated to amazing concert footage and original performances of Calder's new songs.

But it's also a deeply intimate, human story. Calder doesn't just find a new voice, branching out on her own as a solo artist. She also develops a new and heartbreakingly short-lived bond with her mother, learning to say goodbye and move on.

A ticking clock

As the title suggests, time features prominently in the film, providing a solid through line to frame Calder's project and her mother's decline in health.

Calder sees the album as a retrospective of her career, a culmination of her earlier projects. It also feels much more sombre and intimate than her band projects. There's a clear sense that she owns this one, that she has broken off to do something new. And echoes of her mother's condition unmistakably shine through in her music and lyrics.

Her family home serves as a time capsule. It's where Calder learned to play the piano, and where she and her bandmates practiced when they were teens. Always circling back to her mother, we hear what a supportive environment this was for Calder, as the parents of each band member pitched in to insulate and renovate her backyard garage into an ideal jam space.

The film captures a sense of inevitability, as Calder works against the clock to make sure her mother can hear the album, a final parting gift, before she passes.

A disease unchanged

A Matter of Time also shines a light on ALS. Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, opines in the film that ALS is not a popular cause. The neurodegenerative disease has few champions, says Eig, in large part because no one lives long enough to fight for a cure (though the recent Ice Bucket Challenge did bring some attention to the cause).

The film also includes several cuts back in time to Lou Gehrig himself in his final days, learning about his own struggle with the disease, so unknown at the time that it become synonymous with his name. Gehrig's fame as a New York Yankees first baseman helped raise the disease's profile, if only a little.

The tragedy of ALS comes across strongly when the viewer sees the parallels between Gehrig's death in 1939 and Calder's mother's in 2009, both accepting their fates without hope for a cure. Gehrig, in a final speech to his fans, describes himself as "the luckiest man on the face of this Earth." Like Calder's mother, the baseball star lived a life full of love and success before succumbing to the disease.

Director Casey Cohen manages to link Gehrig's story to that of Calder's mother with tasteful subtlety. Their experiences of the disease are shockingly similar, because virtually nothing has changed in the 70 years separating them -- ALS remains incurable, untreatable, and difficult to diagnose. And its cause remains largely a mystery.

A family saga

Calder's story is also one of family ties and bonding between her bandmates. Her mother was adopted and found her own birth mother years ago, putting Calder in touch with her uncle, New Pornographers' frontman Carl Newman.

A remarkably talented musician in her own right, Calder played alongside other members of the New Pornographers through her first band, Immaculate Machine. Her eventual initiation into Newman's band built strong friendships and both a symbolic and literal family.

The strength that Calder drew from her mother is movingly recreated in the huge roster of performers who supported her on Are You My Mother? Her former Immaculate Machine bandmates and current New Pornographers brothers jump onboard, rounding out the album and lending the film a strong sense of community and support.

After her mother's passing, Calder collected everyone for a concert in the Royal BC Museum, in the old Victoria exhibit, showcasing her songs in tribute to her mother and others with ALS. Her stage was a revolving door of talent, cementing the sense of retrospective as she reunited with old collaborators one after another.

In tragedy, Calder carves out a way forward for herself, finding strength in community and hope in the future. It's a privilege to witness such a powerful journey.

A Matter of Time plays at Vancity Theatre Thursday, May 12 at 6:45 p.m. For more information, visit the DOXA website.  [Tyee]

Read more: Music, Film

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