RAISING RENEE began with an offhand promise. In 2003, Jeannie was a
fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, working on our film,
SO MUCH SO FAST. In the next studio was Beverly McIver, working on a
set of paintings about her life. They developed a friendship and Beverly
talked about the promise she’d casually made her mother Ethel that she’d
take care of her older sister Renee, who is intellectually disabled, if anything happened
to Ethel. She was just starting to grasp what that might mean and pleaded
jokingly for advice on how to get out of it.
We were fascinated by Beverly, her talent as a painter, her instinctive
storytelling—and the idea of her promise. Ethel, a maid in Greensboro,
North Carolina who had cared for Renee for 43 years, was strong and
healthy and no one had any idea of how the story would play out, but we
started filming a few scenes while we worked on other projects.
Six years later, the result is RAISING RENEE, a feature documentary that
captures the McIver family’s saga of reinventing itself. The film is the third
in our trilogy about remarkable families which includes the Oscar-nominated TROUBLESOME CREEK: A MIDWESTERN (about the Jordan family,
threatened with the loss of their Iowa farm) and SO MUCH SO FAST
(Sundance selection and Frontline feature about the Heywood family,
threatened with the loss of their son to Lou Gehrig’s disease). All three films
begin at a moment of crisis and take a longitudinal approach to uncover
meanings that are only visible by filming over years, through an intimacy
with our subjects forged by time.
We approached each of these films with an eye toward plot and the inherent
drama of everyday life. At first glance the storyline may seem deceptively
straightforward. But embedded in it is an exploration of family relations, race
and class in America, and intellectual disability. Audiences sometimes
approach these issues with clichéd assumptions —assumptions we seek to
upend with the complexity of actual life. Beverly’s gift to her sister
can be seen as heroic, but the film is just as interested in the conflicted feelings
that come with that gift, which gets closer to the true nature of heroism.
RAISING RENEE is in part about the relationship of art-making and lived
experience. Audiences see events as filmed by our camera and as
interpreted in Beverly’s art, giving them a privileged position to examine the
interactions of painting, life and film. Beverly’s canvases become another
character in themselves.
The three films in this trilogy were long-term commitments because we’re
interested in time – time for our characters’ lives to unfold, and time to
elucidate layers of interconnections through story, structure, image
-- Steven Ascher & Jeanne Jordan