Turning grief into art: UNCW student creates documentary after father dies from cancer

Finding purpose through loss, that's what one UNCW student decided to do with a film project her father started when he was diagnosed with cancer.

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Finding purpose through loss, that’s what one UNCW student decided to do with a film project her father started when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Betsy Bertram lost her father, 66-year-old Scott Bertram, to cancer in July of 2017. When he was diagnosed four years earlier, he set out to create a movie, something he’d always wanted to do. Unfortunately, he was not able to finish it, but he made Betsy promise to turn her grief into art after he died. So, four months after losing her dad, Betsy took what her dad started and created “Captain Scott B and the Great Adventure” with filmmaker Matthew Chenet.

“Grief totally flipped my world upside down. I really lost myself in that process and making this film gave me an opportunity to work through my grief in a creative way to metabolize it and to create a vehicle for having more conversations about grief with other people,” Bertram said.

After his diagnosis, Betsy says her dad filmed everything, all their adventures big and small. The documentary is made up of her dad’s footage and new footage shot by Chenet. She says they went back to some of the same locations to create the experiences they had together.

Something Bertram wasn’t expecting was the lengthy filmmaking process. In the beginning, she says being vulnerable was easy because it was where she was in the grieving process, but it got more difficult as time went on.

“I had forgotten there were other ways to be, but the filmmaking process ended up taking four years so that got more difficult to go back, to revisiting those hard, devastating moments,” Bertram said. “It was really good practice because it forced me to work through it rather than just putting it in a box.”

Betsy and her father both knew his loss would be profound. He was a stay-at-home dad and her best friend. She believes he knew how devastating the loss would be for her, so that’s why he made her promise to turn her grief into art. She wanted to keep that promise and create something beautiful from the “wreckage” of her life.

“It’s interesting because at the start because I was like, this is my dad’s story, we’re telling my dad’s story. As we worked on the project, it did evolve and it became my story and his story and now when I watch the film it’s really hard for me to tell the difference between the two,” Bertram said. “That’s given me a lot of solace because I feel that my dad is in me and I’m in him.”

Something very special for Bertram, she has become a mother since her father died. Even though her children will never meet her dad, she says they feel like they know him because of the documentary.

Bertram says the purpose of the film is to create space for people to talk about grief and to leave people with her dad’s message — to remember that every day is a new adventure.

“Life is magnificent and we don’t have to seek other sorts of wonder that just stepping outside the door and looking up at the sky is a fantastic moment that we get to have every day on this earth,” Bertram said.

The documentary premiered for the first time on campus at the Lumina Theater on Wednesday night. It debuted at the Carrboro Film Festival in 2021.

To watch the trailer for the documentary, and find out more about screenings and the production of the film, visit here.

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