Everett pushed his wheelchair up to the desk in his home studio, the chair almost swallowing up his delicate physique. A feeling of tenderness welled up inside me. As he attentively organized notepad and pencil to begin writing, I wanted to rush up to him and give him a hug.
Everett would have liked that. In fact, he occasionally had requested a hug, but I was so fearful of breaking his fragile ribs. I, instead, would gently take hold of his shoulders and give him a peck on the cheek. His response was a resigned acceptance.
In the late stages of muscular dystrophy, Everett Soop’s physical fragility was no joke. Through four years of difficult fundraising, as a filmmaker, my uppermost concern had been to complete Everett’s film story so that he could see it before his life ended. I was determined to keep my promise.
On this particular Saturday, 14 years ago, it was Valentine’s Day. The occasion was the second of two film shoots to record his life story in my documentary film Soop on Wheels. My film crew, two terrific, sensitive guys – cinematographer Winston Upshall and sound recordist Gary Bruckner – had turned the tiny room upside down, in order for us to get the camera properly positioned to shoot Everett.
As the director I remained in the background, leaning against the door frame, to watch the scene being shot. Everett was determined to light an incense stick before writing. So he did, eventually, then wafting the smoke with his eagle feather. Given his published work not just as a political cartoonist yet also as a satirical columnist, I wanted to show him writing, and had asked him to go through the actions, and jot down anything.
But, this was Everett, whose subterranean rivers of feeling I already had discovered – when given the opportunity – would rise to the surface and break your heart. Quietly writing while the camera rolled, several minutes later Everett leaned back and called me over. He presented me with the sheet. I read it, and tears rolled down my cheeks. In those few minutes, Everett had written a beautiful ode to his departed maternal grandmother, Enimaki, and the sorrow of cultural losses among his Blackfoot people. (Actress Tantoo Cardinal, in her voice-over narration, recites the poem in the film.)
Everett is the most remarkable person whom I ever met, to this day. As a truth teller, regardless, he paid the price of being ahead of his time – the story of all messengers – by experiencing a lifetime of discrimination, isolation and loneliness. Despite all of it, he never gave up trying to create a better world for both Aboriginal, and also disabled, people. As well, he cared for the young people and wanted their lives to be more hopeful.
He loved the women in his family, and they loved him. He loved the animals, the birds, the wide open sky and fields of the Alberta plains. He loved his house plants. Indeed, he cherished life itself. In his cartoons and writings he strongly attacked the forces, outside and within, destroying the integrity and spiritual values of Aboriginal culture.
Our friendship had been evolving for several years before I decided to do the film. In fact, we had written on our hearts a compact of trust that carried us both forward, at a time when identity politics got very ugly, and “white” people like me were supposed to back off from supposedly telling someone else’s story. Yet I simply was the conduit. Meanwhile, people around Everett were totally indifferent to his story getting told at all.
He and I transcended these regrettable barriers – of anger, resentment, prejudice, fear, jealousy, and being stuck in unspeakable grief – all reactions to life’s injustices that diminish our human understanding of each other. We simply were two human beings on a journey trying to make meaning of life’s injustices.
Love has many expressions. Everett and I understood love at a soul level. I had discovered a beautiful Celtic term that I felt characterized our friendship – anam cara – meaning `soul friend.’ Everett felt the same.
He even referred to my love for him as `agape.’ Psychoanalyst Rollo May, in his classic book Love and Will (1969), describes agape as: “the love which is devoted to the welfare of the other, the prototype of which is the love of God for man” [p. 38, 39]. Later in his book, May cautions: “Agape always carries with it the risk of playing God. But this is a risk we need to take and can take” [p. 319].
God was very important to Everett, for he believed in a loving God/Creator/Spirit, and that, ultimately, the world of Spirit would offer solace that had been difficult to attain on Earth. I think that I did try, inadvertently, to play God for while, until Everett taught me – unknowingly as my spiritual mentor – where to draw the line between well-intentioned `rescuer’ trying to change another person’s circumstances and the much more effective role of `compassionate witness’ who pays attention, supportively, to how another individual is negotiating their own reality.
In June 1998, before delivering the film to broadcasters, I brought the rough cut to Everett for approval. He wept. For what I saw in Everett he had not seen – his deep capacity for love. Before the film, he believed that his life had been a failure. My gift of love to Everett was not only making it possible for him to relate his truth to the wider world. Moreover, serendipitously, doing so provided a pathway for him to recognize his own inner beauty.
Everett’s life illustrates the timeless and universal hero’s journey, in a film story that has resonated with audiences at nine film festivals, television viewers, and still sells internationally today. To see a six-minute trailer, that includes the incense-burning scene, go to my Canadian distributor McNabb Connolly. For sales outside Canada, please go to Filmakers Library.