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June 04, 1995|BETH KLEID

At first, Deborah Hoffmann began to document her mother's changing behavior by saving things. She saved the numerous, obsessive notes her mother wrote to herself as reminders to go to the dentist. She taped the repetitive answering-machine messages her mother left for her every five minutes for an hour, as if each time was the first.

"I saved those things just to have a record and also to have proof that this is really happening. I saved them because I thought, 'Nobody's going to believe me,' " says Hoffmann, who, at the time, was a noted documentary film editor living in San Francisco's Bay Area.

Later, the filmmaker in Hoffmann kicked in, and she and her life partner, Frances Reid, a cinematographer, began to bring a camera along when they visited Hoffmann's mother, who was in her 80s. "Again, not with a film in mind, but just because I thought we should record what was going on," Hoffmann, 47, recalls.

The footage they recorded charts Debbie and Doris Hoffmann's poignant mother-daughter journey guided by the disease that was robbing Doris' memory--Alzheimer's. It was eventually made into Hoffmann's documentary, "Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter," a fresh and ultimately uplifting look at a subject many people want to avoid.

And the film that was made with no audience in mind other than Hoffmann's closest friends ended up earning her an Academy Award nomination for her first directorial effort. Now the documentary will be seen by a wider audience as it opens the new season of "P.O.V.," PBS' forum for independent films.

Making the film was good therapy for Hoffmann. "That was a major reason why I did it," she says. It helped her focus on something other than the trying aspects of caring for her mother.

Many of the raw, emotional moments Hoffmann experienced with her mother are reflected in the film. One conversation involves Debbie and Doris talking about their respective parents. Debbie tells Doris that she is her mother. "I was your mother?" the headstrong Doris asks, incredulous. "You are my mother," Debbie replies. "How can I really be your mother; something went wrong," Doris says.

In a touching moment, Debbie answers: "I think something went right."

In spite of some potentially devastating moments, Hoffmann learned to take a lighthearted approach toward her mother. By showing the humorous side to Alzheimer's in the film, Hoffmann she says she broke a taboo. "C'mon, these conversations are absurd," she says. "And it's just crazy to say we can't laugh at them."

In fact, she set out to make a humorous documentary. "That was absolutely my intention. First of all, because that's my bent," says Hoffmann. "But the other thing is that I looked at a lot of films on the subject of Alzheimer's and aging and caregiving, when I was in the throes of all of this, and they terrified me.

"Those films were useless to me. I wanted to do something different."

Hoffmann's sheer wit is apparent in the film when she chronicles her mother's obsessive stages. There's the banana stage, in which Doris goes on a banana binge; the Lorna Doone period, in which she eats cookie after cookie. During the packing stage, Doris packs her suitcase over and over, with everything from Lorna Doones to clothes hangers.

Hoffman says it's OK to laugh during these scenes, which are as comical as they are painful.

Yet, there's a scene in the film that is anything but funny for Hoffman to watch. "The phone message that my mother left me that says, 'This is your stupid mother and I've done everything wrong' was so hard for me." It made Hoffmann realize that her mother was suffering.

The entire process of making a film on a subject so close to her was not easy. Hoffmann couldn't really throw herself into it until she put her mother in a home for Alzheimer's patients. "I was just too swamped with the emotional, practical aspects of this."

There are parts of the film that make it all worthwhile for Hoffmann. In one scene, the mother--who at one time had trouble accepting that her daughter was gay--takes the camera and begins filming Debbie and her partner, Frances. "There was something so sweet about it," Hoffmann says.

What amazes Hoffmann is that Doris' personality emerges in the film. "The thing that makes me the happiest is that people watch the film and they come up to me and say, 'I really love your mother.' "

The film is indeed a tribute to Doris. Hoffmann lovingly includes photographs from her mother's life. She re-creates a picture of a New York intellectual, the wife of an acclaimed author, the late Banesh Hoffmann, and mother to Debbie and her brother.

To Hoffmann, there are positive effects of Alzheimer's. "My mother has softened tremendously. Certain lifetime defenses fall away." There are many things to learn from her mother's openness, Hoffmann says.

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