a growing urgent
Chicago director Ky Dickens earned a lot of trust from the people she interviewed for Zero Weeks, a documentary about the importance of paid family leave. Asking for descriptions of intimate and often painful experiences, she combined a proven professional technique with a personal memory to get the details.
Broadly described, Zero Weeks is about the importance of temporarily leaving work to stay healthy.
When employees are adjusting to life with a newborn, dealing with a grave illness, mourning the loss of a loved one, or caring for a family member, they need personal time to maintain professional focus.
“Family leave impacts everyone,” says Dickens. “(But) people don’t think about it until they need it.” It is also regarded as a basic right in pretty much every country in the developed world, except the United States.
Zero Weeks, which makes its Chicago premiere at AMC Theaters tomorrow night, is adding a new chapter to that narrative.
ZERO WEEKS OFFICIAL TRAILER
Since its world premiere at the Camden Film Festival last September, Zero Weeks has screened heavily in states with pending leave bills like Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Elected officials in Maine and the Colorado Board of Health have scheduled the film for several dates and, on April 17, it will screen for the U.S. Congress.
Like many people, Dickens became aware of the issue by dealing with an unforeseen life event. It happened shortly before she gave birth to her daughter, Harlow, who turns four this year.
“I was at a small production company and they told me that, because they’re small, they don’t have to do anything for pregnancy leave,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘that can’t be right.’”
After consulting with her friends, her mother, and Google, she determined that it was not only true, but also “not the small company’s fault.”
“They were doing their best,” she continues. “For most Americans having a baby or a tragedy, there is no policy. You have to work for a company of fifty or more, and work for over a year, to apply for unpaid leave.”
It was also, as she quickly learned, an impending national crisis. When people worry that taking time off for family or medical issues might put their jobs at risk, they can become demotivated and, occasionally, quit. Since our culture is hooked on the female homemaker role, this can affect women the most.
“For medical emergencies, usually it’s the woman who drops out,” Dickens says. “We’re not going to have equality in the workplace until we have equality at home.”
The film also cites factors that affect minorities in the workplace, leading the director to believe that, “paid family leave is the best way to reduce gender inequality, pay inequality, socioeconomic inequality.”
All the while, companies have to cover the cost of rehiring employees while losing the ones who offer institutional memory. Sooner or later, the situation costs everyone.
The realization that “this is happening all over the country” prompted Dickens to make a bold move. “I wasn’t going to give up time with my daughter,” she says. “I ended up leaving that job to work on this film full time.”
She wasn’t the only one.
Brian Wilson had made a similar career adjustment after his former employer failed to provide sufficient time for he and his wife, Krystina, to properly mourn the loss of their twin daughters, Riley and Ashlyn, in 2015.
Krystina was there when he called work on speakerphone to enquire about taking time off. She describes the moment as “a pretty horrific way” to learn about paid family leave.
“My husband called his H.R. and said, ‘I’m grieving my daughters, I need to be with my wife,” she remembers. “I’ll never forget it: they said, ‘well, you had two deaths instead of one, so we’ll give you six days instead of three.’”
Brian stayed away from the office for a month without pay.
A short while later, Krystina read about Zero Weeks in a Chicago Tribune article. She reached out to Dickens.
“I told her … why we wanted to help get this film made,” she recalls. “I wanted to make sure no human being on the planet has to hear what we heard from that H.R. department.”
At the time, she figured it was just a conversation, thinking, “I can’t do this on camera.”
But she changed her mind after Dickens and producer Alexis Jaworski took her and Brian out to dinner.
Dickens’ sincerity and experience had a lot to do with her decision.
“When you’re dealing with people, it’s about emotional relationship building,” she explains. “It’s about their life, sharing their stories publicly. I see and value that commitment. Some people you meet and it works out … Krystina and Brian and I felt that instantly.”
Up to that point, Krystina had endured the tragedy through a significantly different context than the one that confronted Brian.
“My company was wonderful,” she says. “They gave me a month of paid maternity leave to recover.” She also had been “very open” to discussing the experience, whereas Brian “was private.” But that night, he was ready to open up.
“We walked out of that dinner and he said, ‘we have to do this,’” she recalls. “We were walking home in the West Loop and I was crying. I’m insanely proud of him for being part of the film.”
She was also six months pregnant.
When their daughter Isabella was born a few months later, Brian was working for a different company. Unfortunately, it offered no “maternity leave for men.” So he decided to quit and stay at home with their daughter.
Krystina is “very grateful” for his decision.
“Six months ago, Bella was asking for Daddy instead of Mommy to put him to bed,” she says. “And (Brian) said, ‘as a man, I always figured I would be on the outside looking in.’”
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