Tuki Jencquel’s mom Jackie was a formidable woman. As an activist, she was brusque and unflinching. She rallied against needless suffering at end of life and demanded that all of our rational choices be respected, even if they conflict with generations of moral precedent. In Jackie the Wolf, Jencquel present his mother’s last years with remarkable patience and acumen. He allows her story to be told through her voice, while providing enough pushback on the inherent contradictions of her choice to make it more than an outlet for one perspective. He captures her ability to choose death as both brave and nihilistic, an almost performative call to the closing of things at an arbitrary time. The surrealism of a mother and son sharing such profound intimacies around life, death, and sexuality occasionally leans towards the voyeuristic, yet thanks to this remarkably charismatic subject and effective filmmaking from Jencquel and his collaborators, we’re treated to a story that is deeply moving and profound, darkly humorous, and, ironically life-affirming.
POV spoke to Jencquel prior the film’s premiere at Hot Docs 2023
POV: Jason Gorber
TJ: Tuki Jencquel
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
POV: This was obviously a personal journey. Surely, the biggest challenge was to not make it insular, but to make it a story that directly addressed a complicated situation.
TJ: Five years ago, I started this project and I thought I was simply going to make a portrait of my mother. There’s even this scene from that, where I’m asking her to tell me about some photos. Slowly, the film became something else, as it become more of a dialogue I had with her. I started becoming a character during the shoot and the edit. My editor, Sylvie, and my producers found they were relating more to these circumstances where I was there as a character.
POV: When you were starting that portrait, had she already decided on a specific date, or was it just a movie about you mom?
TJ: I’ve been doing a film about my mom ever since I went to film school, actually. I was always having her on film, but the stories were never concrete. Before she made the announcement that I used in the film, she had already published an article in Le Temps, a Swiss newspaper where she put a final date. Then something clicked and I realized it’s now or never.
POV: Many people think that their family is worthy of a film. You as a filmmaker clearly had a “fascination” with your mother. Why is your mother the subject, or is it simply that she is in this heightened situation at the end of her life in which she becomes something by announcing her death?
TJ: I definitely saw my mom as a fascinating subject, and you’re right: everyone thinks that their mom is!
POV: What is something that do we not know about your mom from this film that brought this fascination?
TJ: There was actually a lot of her background story that interested me and I wanted to make the film about it. Both of her parents were Russian and Ukrainian. Her father fled the Russian revolution because he was part of the entourage of the czar, as his father was a doctor to the court, and they fled to France. My mom’s mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Bolshevik who was a close friend of Trotsky and had to flee when Stalin came to power. My mom’s grandmother died a horrible death from cancer, shouting for weeks to be released from the suffering. He husband, a doctor, tried to kill her with a pillow, but he couldn’t do it, and let her suffer for a few more days in agonizing pain. Her daughter, my mom’s mom, witnessed this, and this is a story told throughout my mother’s life. They fled from Moscow to Vladivostok and then by foot all the way to China where my grandmother grew up, and then met her husband, my grandfather, who fled the Nazis because he was a Russian Jew. He had to leave through Casablanca and then they met and my mom was born in China to two parents. This is going to be a long story [as a film]!
POV: Yet you do not spend time on that crazy backstory! This means your mom surely believes her story to be of global historical interest. She clearly has a sense that her position, her history, and her story are elevated, which means that declaring the end of her life is worthy of public consumption. Can you talk about what navigating the pressure to present this story is like both as a son and a filmmaker?
TJ: My mom, before she announced her death, was an activist for assisted suicide for ten years. She was the second person in the right to die society in France. She was the spokesperson, she was on TV, on debates, all the time. She was phenomenal at that; she was hilarious. She would go in with determination. One day she was on TV on a set, she was debating with a rabbi, a priest, and a Muslim scholar about euthanasia and assisted suicide. A woman, and three men of the Abrahamic religions, of course appalled at her ideas. The priest talked about the dignity of Christ and that he gave his life for humanity. And then my mom says “Well, that’s a suicide.” This on live television! And the priest says “No, no, it’s not a suicide because he didn’t take his own life.” So my mom said, “Well, then, it’s an assisted suicide!”
For so many years, I was used to [hearing] my mom speaking about her own death as if she was speaking about going for a coffee. I was already numbed to it, but when other people would hear me talk about it or see it, they would be shocked. This doesn’t happen in every mother-son relationship. In every family, you don’t have this kind of conversation, including the way my mom would talk to me about her sex experiences or her desires. As a child, my mom had no taboos talking to me and my brothers. My friends from school loved my mom because they would come home and she would talk about sex and rock and roll and drugs. Of course, I understand it can be at times irritating or painful, and it can hurt people’s feelings. She was definitely not careful in the way she would express what she thought. But I think that it’s a unique story of a unique character.
POV: How did you balance showing your mother in both her best and worst light?
TJ: While I was making the film, there were moments I had doubts: Is it ethical to make a film about your mother’s plan to have an assisted suicide? Is it even right to share this and to be filming her while we’re discussing this? One thing that helped me in one sense it was Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s film. It’s such a difficult story, and she approached it in such a beautiful and elegant way. But it’s also so personal.
POV: Was there another film that you looked at to be able to navigate this kind of structure?
TJ: No. When I was filming my mom, suddenly the camera helped me connect. It became some sort of device that made us speak about things that I didn’t want to talk about when I was not filming. Normally, I didn’t want to hear any more about her. But when I was filming, that was our moment. We would have very long conversations, and in the film, I used a fraction. Filming became almost therapeutic for both of us. The camera was a therapist who wasn’t talking but who was there. When she passed away, I had already started editing with Sylvie. We had a first approach of what the film was going to be, and I even showed it to my mom.
POV: That’s fascinating because we all dream about being able to see our own obituary or being able to attend our funeral to see what people are going to say about us.
TJ: I would say that she saw the first 30 or 40 minutes of something that we had come up with. She didn’t say much, but I was happy that she got to see it. She passed away while I was editing it, and I thought the film was going to be a totally different ending, I thought it was going to be the ending that she chose not to die. We didn’t do one edit, we did it in stages. I came back to it in May and my mom had passed away in March. I was still coming to terms with it all, very fresh in the mourning process, and then Sylvie and I saw what we had done. We knew we could not use any of what we had locked. When we know that she is dead, we could not use almost any of the scenes we’d put in there. They felt wrong. There was a lot more black humor about it that suddenly felt wrong, so we had to rethink the whole edit.
In that first experimental cut, there was more of me trying to explain her backstory, which we realized was unnecessary. As for the process of seeing her in the edit room and in the sound work for the last year, it helped me. My real mourning process will start when the film is completely finished. This is something we started together, and then she wasn’t there anymore and I had to finish it—not alone because I had a team, but without her. It suddenly became a promise: I had to finish it no matter the pain.
POV: There aren’t many moments where your mom is questioned, save for late in the film where you confront her. Can you talk about those around her that thought what she was doing was wrong?
TJ: There were loads of people who confronted her. There were people who stopped being her friends because they didn’t want to hear about it. But I didn’t have that on film. These things don’t happen necessarily in front of the camera, or people don’t want to be filmed. My older brother is not in the film, my younger brother is, but I don’t have him in this situation.
POV: Is there drama there outside of the frame that we should read into? Or is that unfair to your brothers?
TJ: One of my brothers didn’t want to be in the film, the other one didn’t mind being in the film. But I didn’t really want to provoke. Any confrontations with my mom and him happened a long time ago, well before I started the film. Now, I don’t think any of us really believed her anymore that she would go through with it. She had been talking too much and too long about it. TI confront her towards the end, and it took me a long time to get to there. I don’t know how to explain this, but I was trying to understand her. She was convinced that she was right in her opinion, so confronting her was useless. But I do agree with you: now when I see it, it does pain me a little bit because I feel that maybe it came a little too late. I could have cheated that editing and make it feel like I was more direct than I was, but I didn’t.
POV: The cameras were not there when she ended her life.
TJ: I wasn’t there when my mother died. She didn’t go to Switzerland. She died in Paris. I had a feeling it was coming soon, but I didn’t know when. Then I was both surprised and I wasn’t when it occurred. I had long come to the conclusion that if I was there at her final moments, I wasn’t going to film. I do film that final moment with someone else, and of course I’m very honoured that Joan let me be there to share that moment. But my focus is on my mom at that moment. It’s showing she knows how it is, she’s done this many times.
I knew the ending would be the empty apartment. The apartment is also a character in the film, and it being empty [represents] death. Her apartment was her real love affair. It was the apartment, it was more important than Nikolai, more important than anything. It being empty was almost the hardest for me to shoot. I had to clear the apartment. I had to take care of moving all of the furniture because it was not hers, and then filming the empty apartment was a challenge.
POV: You were not invited to be there at her last moment, both as a son and as a filmmaker. She did not call you to say “I’m doing this now.” That is interesting considering she spent all of those years talking about what it was going to be.
TJ: I can tell you a little bit about it because she was undecided if she was going to go to Switzerland or France. In France, it’s illegal. She told me at one point, “If I don’t go to Switzerland, the only sad thing is I’m not going to be with my sons.” And I told her, “If you’re really decided, I will be there with you. I want to be there.” I still regret it to this day that I wasn’t more decisive in that, because I didn’t hold her hand in that last moment. I wasn’t there. It pains me. But she decided for different reasons to not to go to Switzerland, and in order to protect us, she didn’t want us there because she knew we would have problems with the law if we were there.