Documentary races against Alzheimer’s

By Alex Stedman

Documentary film making can pose a set of unpredictable challenges, but one local director faces an especially unusual obstacle: documenting the story of a woman who is gradually losing her memory.

Melina Kolb, founder and executive producer of the Chicago-based production company Tellit Multimedia, is filming “Remember Me Sue,” a documentary focused on the work of Sue Duncan, mother of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and founder of the Sue Duncan Children’s Center, 4225 S. Lake Park Ave., a free after-school program for children on the South Side that began in 1961. The center provides various resources for the students, including free meals, one-on-one tutoring, gym time and an academic curriculum. Duncan’s Alzheimer’s disease forced her to stop working at the center in 2011.

“I just thought what Sue was doing was really incredible,” Kolb said. “She was just this very captivating person to talk to.”

Kolb’s work with Duncan started in 2003 when she was a student at the University of Chicago and was assigned to be a tutor at the center as part of a work-study program. Intrigued by Duncan’s work, she made a six-minute documentary about Duncan and her center titled “Sue’s Room.” The documentary went on to win a film contest through Current TV and aired on the network’s national cable channel.

Kolb continued to collect footage of Duncan and the center for nine years, with aspirations of making a longer documentary. She said the news of Duncan’s Alzheimer’s encouraged her to work faster, and she set up a Kickstarter account, an online funding platform for artistic projects, to raise enough money to complete the film. The campaign met its $15,000 goal Nov. 1 with more than 160 backers.

“I just felt amazed by how many people have helped,” she said. “I can’t just email 160 people I know and have them all donate. You have to have people rooting for you.”

Kolb used some of the funds to hire an editor to help her sift through more than 80 hours of footage. She hopes to finish filming by the end of May 2013 and complete it by summer 2014.

Owen Duncan, Sue Duncan’s other son and chairman of the center, said he wasn’t surprised by the support the project garnered because his mother’s work has had a widespread impact. He said her teaching style and her effect on the children led many to success.

“I think the most fundamental ingredient was that she looked at each child and saw them as they really could be,” he said. “Then, [the child] starts seeing what they can be and learns to overcome obstacles.”

One of her former students, Kerrie Holley, said he credits many of his life accomplishments to Duncan. Holley, who is chief technology officer of IBM’s Global Business Services, started attending the center in 1961 when he was 7 years old. Duncan taught him during his teenage years and then he volunteered at the center, ultimately spending 20 years with her until he left Chicago.

Holley said Duncan served as a motherly figure to him, and the experiences she provided opened his eyes to new perspectives.

“She doesn’t measure her success by numbers,” he said. “She measures her success one kid at a time, in terms of whether she’s making a difference in their lives.”

Kolb has run into her fair share of obstacles while filming. One of Duncan’s more famous alums, the actor Michael Clarke Duncan (no relation), who played John Coffey in “The Green Mile,” died in September. Kolb said she planned to interview him but had to interview his acquaintances instead.

Filming interviews with Sue Duncan has also become more of a challenge. Kolb said she has to call no more than 15 minutes in advance to come by for an interview, otherwise Duncan will forget it’s planned. She believes she’s the only person who can complete the project because of her relationship with Duncan.

“Luckily, she remembers me as the girl with the camera,” Kolb said. “I don’t think anyone else could come into her life like this. I think she would be freaked out by it.”

Kolb said so many people have offered to speak of Duncan’s impact on their lives that she can’t fit them all into the film. Holley attributes the overwhelming response to the selflessness he saw in her.

“You see, there is no motivation that drives [Sue] other than the well-being of the students she serves,” Holley said. “She does it because she is having a tremendous impact on the kids.”