Not Going Quietly Director on the “Empathy Engine” of Documentary

Nicholas Bruckman, director of Not Going Quietly, talks to TV Real about the documentary and the activist Ady Barkan and his fight for universal healthcare amid battling ALS.

In 2017, Barkan, who had the previous year been diagnosed with ALS shortly after welcoming a son, confronted Senator Jeff Flake during a chance encounter on an airplane in an effort to get him to vote against a tax bill. Not long after, Liz Jaffe, who captured a video of the exchange that would go viral and catapult Barkan and his activism into the spotlight, reached out to Bruckman to help them launch the healthcare-focused Be a Hero campaign with a YouTube video.

When Bruckman met Barkan in 2018, he was inspired to take on a project far greater in scope than had been planned. “I flew out to Santa Barbara, met Ady and realized what an incredible human being he is and that there was a much bigger story there and pitched him this idea of making a film,” says Bruckman. “Because he was already sick for a year at that time and we didn’t have a lot of time left with his voice, we dove in very quickly into this crazy project that developed into what you see in Not Going Quietly.”

Bruckman was attracted to becoming a filmmaker by the idea of using it as a tool to bring people closer together, to give audiences a chance to spend time in another’s shoes, building bridges of understanding. “Documentary film is an empathy engine and is probably the best tool that artists and communicators and people that want to shape our world have to build empathy and connection for people that they might not know,” says Bruckman. “A lot of the division in the world comes from fear and distrust and xenophobia, from not knowing the other. What documentary or factual media does is truly allow you to step into that person’s shoes in a way that no other medium can.”

Chosen for season 34 of the PBS documentary series POV, Not Going Quietly follows Barkan’s political journey as he fights for Medicare for All, which is made all the more personal as he battles ALS and the mounting costs of said battle. “You see the injustice in the film for people who aren’t able to access healthcare and the expense it costs and the burden it incurs on families,” says Bruckman, who adds that along with the film’s political message is one of humanity.

“The movie and Ady’s message really transcend politics because Ady has turned this absolutely otherwise meaningless tragedy of ALS and this illness into this amazing tool to shape a better world,” says Bruckman. “He used this disease to organize and galvanize and mobilize people around the country to fight alongside him, to create a better world for his son and for all of us. I think that message in there is not just about being an activist or an organizer; it’s about, how do we spend the time we have left? And how can we turn difficult, challenging and tragic situations—what is the underlying potential or value or meaning that we can find [in them] that can actually help propel our lives forward from those circumstances?”

For Bruckman, it proved challenging while making the film and growing close to Barkan to see the harsh progression of his ALS. But it was Barkan’s own resilience that offered an antidote. “What was really rewarding was to see his humor and resilience and the way he fought back against it—both on a personal level as a father and a husband and also as an organizer,” says Bruckman, who adds that Not Going Quietly is injected with plenty of fun and humor as it captures Barkan’s road trip through America.

“That road trip was a celebratory and joyous experience and community with a lot of young activists that I had the great privilege to go on and be a part of to make this film,” says Bruckman. “It speaks to this idea that doing the work, fighting for justice, being in community with other people who want to make a better world is actually not always hard work. Sometimes, it can be a lot of fun and it can be super funny.”

Balancing the personal tragedy of ALS that powers the political thrust of Not Going Quietly with humor—and sometimes slightly darker comedy from Barkan—was important for Bruckman. “The humor has an element of resistance to it,” says the director. “He’s not going to let himself be defined by ALS, and he’s not going to let our government be defined by the special interests and the corporate lobbyists that are fighting against the needs of working-class people and fighting against universal healthcare. The humor is connected to the politics. Then, of course, it’s a movie, and I think there are elements of it that are really like a buddy comedy and something that I hope people want to see.”

Not Going Quietly is produced by Duplass Brothers Productions and People’s Television, a studio founded by Bruckman that creates video content and digital campaigns for a variety of organizations, as well as films and documentaries. It’s worked with the likes of Black Lives Matter and its parent company Global Network, Greenpeace and The Nature Conservancy. “People’s Television is all about the empowering of people who are changing the world through storytelling,” says Bruckman. “The company is founded on this idea that stories have the power to shape the world and that stories like Not Going Quietly can be a tool that activists and changemakers use to create a more just and fair society.”