COVID breakdown: Singer-songwriter’s film asks, ‘What Happened at the Veterans Home?’

  • Singer-songwriter Laura Wetzler says her despair and outrage over the COVID-related deaths of elderly patients in care facilities prompted her to turn to filmmaking.

  • Laura Wetzler, left, and Rydia Q. Vielehr, who plays hospital nurse Gwen Michaels, on the set for “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” Image courtesy Laura Wetzler

  • Rydia Q. Vielehr plays an overwhelmed hospital nurse who’s worried about her mother’s health in “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” Laura Wetzler

  • Sonya Joyner plays Gloria Michaels, a disabled former Army nurse who’s caught up in the surge of COVID-19 cases in the film “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” Image courtesy Laura Wetzler

  • Judith Nelson Dilday plays Mary Emmett, a certified nursing assistant who blows the whistle on shoddy conditions for patients and staff in “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” Image courtesy Laura Wetzler

  • Judith Nelson Dilday plays Mary Emmett, a certified nursing assistant who blows the whistle on conditions for patients and staff in “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” Laura Wetzler

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2022 12:25:44 PM

Laura Wetzler has made her living for years as a musician: a singer-songwriter who performs both her own songs and a wide range of other music, from traditional Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish songs to Broadway classics to children’s tunes.

On her tours, she’s also offered workshops and lectures on subjects such as the history of Jewish and American music and entertainment. Before the pandemic, she’d typically give 150 concerts and lectures a year.

But when COVID-19 arrived and shut down almost all live music performances, Wetzler turned to filmmaking — and not just to stay busy artistically.

Like many Americans, Wetzler, who lives in Cummington, was horrified in spring 2020 to read of widespread COVID deaths among the residents of veterans’ homes and other facilities providing care to the elderly — the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke among them.

It was a tragedy that both infuriated and saddened her, she says, one that she felt compelled to address in something other than music.

She’s done just that with “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” an independent drama she wrote and directed and put together on a shoestring budget. Now, after winning numerous awards at film festivals beginning last fall, the movie makes its regional debut on March 20 at Northampton’s Academy of Music.

Wetzler says she’s often sung and played her guitar in nursing homes and other institutional settings. In that sense, news about COVID deaths among these elderly residents seemed very personal to her, something she felt she had to come to terms with.

“I was upset about the statistics [on deaths],” she said. “Beyond how horrible they were, it was easy to forget that there were real people, real lives behind those numbers.”

“I just started hearing some of those voices, and I began writing them down as a series of monologues,” she said.

Her story is built around three main characters: Gloria Michaels, a disabled former Army nurse now in a veterans’ home; Gloria’s daughter, Gwen Michaels, a hospital nurse increasingly overwhelmed with COVID-infected patients; and Mary Emmett, a certified nursing assistant who blows the whistle on inadequate safety protocols at the veterans’ home.

There’s a fourth character of sorts, a kind of “impish trickster,” as Wetzler puts it, that takes on the persona of the COVID virus itself, bringing a seriocomic element to the story.

“I didn’t want this just to be a collection of terrible stories of loss and grief,” Wetzler said. “I wanted to have some other perspectives and to take a look at a broad series of issues.”

Indeed, “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” tackles not just the onslaught of COVID but the low pay for many employees of elder care facilities; the burnout the pandemic has produced among health care workers; and the financial shortcuts and mismanagement at some facilities that led to equipment and staffing shortages, along with inadequate care.

“I think one of the things I’m trying to say with this film is that we all need to take better care of each other,” Wetzler said.

Creating the film

Wetzler said she originally wrote “What Happened at the Veterans Home?” as a play (she previously studied theater and is also a poet). But given the restrictions imposed on live drama by COVID, a film seemed a more likely medium for presenting her story.

How to do it, though? Basically, Wetzler says, “I read everything I could about the process of how to make a film and then I learned from every person with whom I worked.” Being able to draw on the region’s artistic depth was a big help, she notes.

Wetzler also enlisted Keena Keel, a Devens-based actor, to serve as an adviser for casting and cultural issues. Keel brought Sonya Joyner, who plays Gloria, to Wetzler’s attention, and after auditioning other actors, Wetzler hired Rydia Q. Vielehr as Gwen and Judith Nelson Dilday as Mary Emmett.

Robin Burdulis, a percussionist who has played with Wetzler for years, takes on the role of the COVID virus. Jared Skolnick, an Agawam native, served as the film’s editor and director of photography, and Rikk Desgres from Northampton’s Pinehurst Picture & Sound handled post-production work on sound and color.

Wetzler composed all the music for the film and worked with New York composer and music producer George Wurzbach on orchestration and additional musician performances.

Because of COVID restrictions, Wetzler wrote nearly all the scenes as set pieces for the individual actors, who speak directly to the camera from a variety of settings across the Valley, indoors and out.

“It wasn’t safe to have two people in a room together,” Wetzler said, “but we were able to do some scenes outside with social distancing.”

All the rehearsals, she says, were actually done on Zoom in August 2020, and the footage was shot over eight days in September. Editing and other post-production work took place online.

Those mostly solo scenes help reinforce the sense of isolation COVID produced. They also serve to give the film, which runs about 50 minutes, a bit of a documentary feel, in which the actors’ ability to channel a range of emotions — anger, disbelief, grief, fear and determination — straight to the camera carries the story.

There’s room for some gritty humor, too, such as when Gloria, seated in a nondescript room at the fictional veterans’ center, says “This isn’t what I had in mind for my Golden Years…. Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot of nice people who work here. But they pay them crap.”

A more sobering scene finds Gwen seated at the bottom of a stairway at her hospital, still wearing her scrubs. She peels off her face mask and speaks in a trembling voice about how caring for COVID patients has exhausted her physically and emotionally.

“I’ve been a nurse for 15 years and I’ve never seen folks so sick,” she says.

She also fears for Gloria, not having been able to get word of how her mother is doing at the veterans’ home, and she’s distraught that, because of the danger the virus poses, she can’t provide the close emotional support she’s used to giving patients.

“I want to give so much more,” Gwen says.

The film reflects what was known about COVID in mid-2020. There are scenes, for instance, where the characters voice their hopes that the crisis will spur creation of a vaccine as well as a national determination to improve heath care for the elderly. Wetzler says she couldn’t imagine at that time just how politically and socially divisive the virus and safety protocols would become.

The movie is also a labor of love. Wetzler won’t reveal what it cost to make, but she does say it was “a fraction” of what a typical film of comparable length would run. She financed it herself, she says, “because I wanted the people who worked on it to get paid.”

Her hope is that it will be a reminder to viewers of the critical role health care workers play in helping the elderly, and of the sacrifices veterans have made in serving the country. “They all deserve better,” she said.

Part of all ticket sales at the Academy screening, which takes place March 20 at 2 p.m., will go the veterans organizations WESOLDIERON.org in Leeds and NABMW.org (the latter stands for National Association of Black Military Woman, which was a research source for Wetzler’s film). A Q&A with Wetzler, Keel, Joyner and Vielehr will follow the screening.

A limited number of free tickets for vets and health care workers are available through reservation by contacting info@nervygirlfilms.com.

Wetzler is elated her movie has gotten a good reception; it will play in April at the Boston International Film Festival and the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. But looking back, she said with a laugh, “I’m not sure I would have done this if I’d known how much work would be involved.”

Indeed, now that’s she playing music live again, “It’s just pure joy,” she said.

Information on COVID protocols at the Academy of Music can be found at aomtheatre.com.


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