“The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.”
Phil Wall’s documentary The Book Keepers opens with a title card of the Pat Conroy quotation above. It is very appropriate for this journey through a family’s grief, love, and the healing power of storytelling.
Carol Wall (the filmmaker’s mother) wrote popular essays in Southern Living and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for many years. When she wrote her memoir, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, about finding beauty in life that is fleeting, she suffered a recurrence of breast cancer, and eventually died from it. The book was a critical success, but she never really got to enjoy that. So her husband Dick heads off on a promotional book tour, doing the things that Carol would have so loved to have done. As Dick travels the country, Phil documents the journey and the stories that Dick shares not only about the book, but about Carol and their family. Much of the film is Dick and Phil in the car as they drive between events, talking about the family.
For Dick this is a way of fulfilling Carol’s dream. It is also a way of working his way through the grieving process. I don’t know if it was planned as a way to deal with grief, but by constantly telling and retelling her story, his life begins to come back together. That applies a bit to Phil as he makes the film of his father’s journey—that is another story being told. So the film tells a story about telling a story about telling a story. Each level is in its own way a healing process.
As a retired pastor, I know that such storytelling, while it may be difficult at times, opens doors to allow peace and grace to enter into lives that struggle with loss. As the film continues over a span of a year, we hear many of the same stories at different promotional events, but that kind of repetition is a part of the way that storytelling heals in such a situation. Even stories that are painful can become a thing of beauty.
The Book Keepers is in theaters.
Photos courtesy of Phil Wall.