Hot Docs Forum: ‘Heaven Through the Back Door’ Explores an Unconventional Friendship in Unconventional Ways

Artists and filmmakers Anna Fitch (“Survivors”) and Banker White (“Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars”) are preparing a multidisciplinary documentary project that they’re pitching this week at the Hot Docs Forum, describing it as a testament to the enduring power of friendship and what we learn from each other in life and after death.

“Heaven Through the Backdoor” explores the mystery of death through the unconventional friendship of Fitch and Yolanda Shea – affectionately dubbed “Yo” – two kindred spirits born 49 years apart. Directed by Fitch and White, the film is produced by Heidi Fleisher (“Wake Up on Mars”) and Sara Dosa (“Fire of Love”) for Mirabel Pictures.

The film is a deeply personal and emotional tribute to Shea, who was born in Chiasso, Switzerland in 1924 and crisscrossed the globe before settling in California. Fitch described her as “many things to many people: a great-grandmother, career weed dealer, intellectual, psychic, hostess, tyrant, a captivating storyteller.” Their friendship spanned nearly 15 years until Shea’s death in 2013.

It was a loss that Fitch struggled to overcome. “I had tried to prepare to lose her, but there’s really no way to prepare to lose someone that you love,” she said. Though the director had begun filming their time together throughout the final two years of Shea’s life, “I didn’t find that the footage really brought me much solace, even though I thought it would.”

She embarked on an unorthodox grieving process, enlisting a friend’s help to create a puppet of Shea while writing letters to her late friend. Soon she and White – who has a fine arts background – constructed a one-third scale version of Shea’s house which they filled with relics from her life. Before long, they had created a world in miniature inspired by her elaborate, funny, often profound stories.

“We really just threw ourselves into that creative ritual, which became an outlet to feel emotions I hadn’t been able to feel otherwise. And looking back, it really was an intuitive, creative ritual that helped me move through grief,” Fitch said. “This process was a bit of blindly feeling my way through the dark until something started to make sense.” White added that the production “felt different than anything else that I worked on before.”

“Heaven Through the Back Door” juxtaposes observational footage with artistic interpretations of Shea’s stories, using intricately built sets, animal actors, puppetry, and an archive of family photos and artwork. Spanning eight decades and three continents, those tales invite the audience into detailed memories of her rebellious past and offer perspectives into parenting, feminism, religion, and spirituality.

The final project will include a feature-length documentary film and an immersive gallery show that features the replica of Shea’s house, which has already been displayed at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, Ca.

Fitch described that exhibition as a moving experience that revealed new layers to her labor of love. “It really gave us a chance to see the effect that the project had on people in a physical space, and it created a place for conversations around grief and aging – things that are not easy topics to broach,” she said. “People really wanted to talk to us about it, they wanted to talk to each other about it.”

“Everyone had stories about a grandfather that they lost, a mother who they lost, a sister who they lost. They were able to bring their own sense of grief and care and love to this very specific experience,” added Dosa, who previously collaborated with the filmmakers on the Peabody- and Emmy-nominated documentary “Survivors.” “I think that’s been one of the things that’s been very powerful for me to see is just how you can create this really cohesive world, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, yet somehow people can relate.”

During the Forum, the filmmakers are searching for partners to close financing on “Heaven Through the Backdoor.” “It’s really on the condition that people fall in love with it as much as we have, and that there’s this serendipitous nature to it and a similar like-mindedness,” said Fleisher. “For me, this work is just this incredibly moving celebration of Yo, but also of a life well-lived far from conventions. I think it holds so many lessons of self-acceptance, introspection, and giving into the mystery of both life and death.”

Forum pitches can be streamed on the Hot Docs website. The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 28 – May 8.