Today marks one year since the passing of our beloved co-founder Robert West. We are continuing to honor him today by posting more tributes from his friends, family, and colleagues. Below you’ll find the eulogy given by Judith Helfand, Robert’s dear friend and the co-founder of Working Films, who reflects on their longtime friendship and pioneering work together. We’re also sharing reflections from Robert’s twin sister, Jane Bench, and Robert’s childhood friend Ted Winfield that were given at Robert’s memorial service last year. If these stories and tributes inspire you to share your own memories of Robert, please post in the comments here or on our Facebook page.
Tribute for Robert West
by Judith Helfand
Hi. I am Judith. I co-founded Working Films with Robert West.
How do you write a memorial for your best friend who also doubled as your best editor? The one who under normal circumstances would be on the receiving end of this prose…and who, at the eleventh hour… would be the one I could count on to give me frank, stark, commentary, inspiration, a concrete applied lesson in “Less is More,” and when necessary – a hatchet job?
You see Robert was my “Less is More” man.
Many of you might not know this.. but Robert’s favorite tool (in Microsoft Word) was strike-through: RED, BOLD, and FEARLESS – even when afraid.
And what remained – was the heart of our brainstorming sessions, the EKHT (in Yiddish) — the IKAR (in Hebrew) the ESSENCE of the essence of our vision and our ideas.
We fought about “less is more” for many years and in many contexts… If we were doing a residency, I wanted five nights for the filmmakers and he wanted three. If we were doing a workshop, he wanted to end at three, and I wanted to end at six and take everyone out for drinks. I demanded we had to have more protein at breakfast (hard boiled eggs) and fewer pastries. What ever the back and forth, the resulting compromise was our secret sauce.
We met in spring 1994. I followed a lead, “Call the film curator at the Mint – Robert West – he’ll lend you a video projector” for a work in progress screening of a risqué documentary about the radical labor/union history of southern textile workers in the 1930’s and the impact of keeping that history – and legacy – a secret and silenced. That film, and that screening in the basement of the First United Methodist Church would inspire meaningful discussion, interest and a dialogue about respect and workers rights… vs. shame, retribution and shunning. That’s why we needed an emergency video projector at the First United Methodist Church in Charlotte. That’s what I told Robert. “When is the screening,” he asked? “Tonight,” I told him. And, with what I would come to know and expect – an intake of breath, a voice that goes up with a bit of exasperation – we began what has been, and will be, the most important, pivotal, cathartic, kinetic, transformative, and exponentially life-changing working relationship of my life. (You see this is what I am like without him. I use run on adjectives. He would have made me choose one).
That film and that night turned into a “Labor to Neighbor” screening project which then turned into “From Farm to Fast Food, On the Job in North Carolina” – a classroom curriculum project in which we figured out how to use clips from award winning independent documentaries to teach economics and workers rights — to 8th, 9th and 11th and 12th graders in NC, as part of their standard curriculum (It was subversive).
But the thing that led us to found Working Films – the thing above all others – was a moment when everything he cared about and was passionate about all happened in one room.
It was at a screening of the film It’s Elementary, when the Charlotte Mecklenburg County Commission threatened to defund community based organizations and institutions they believed were supporting a gay and lesbian lifestyle.
It was the beginning of a moment when a few very frightened, angry, complicated people with power were promoting censorship against organizations that were creating a civil and inclusive society (Arts groups, social service organizations, etc.), and his film festival and his position at the museum were both in question
They were asking the Mint Museum, which housed the Charlotte Film and Video Festival, “Just how many LGBT films were/are you screening?”
So Robert screened It’s Elementary by Debra Chasnoff, a story about how to teach about gay families in the classroom. By that point he’d been running the Charlotte Film and Video Festival for many successful years. A festival known for Robert personally working hard to bring out a large engaged audience and to make the filmmaker feel very cared for. Each one – by the way – was paid a fee for their time. This was a priority for him.
He also ALWAYS seized the opportunity to really use the moment. He was thinking about those moments more as a curator than an activist (oh we should have these people and those people, fill up the audience), but on some level with that particular screening and a little bit of ego involved (the room needs to be packed and full) he made the shift from curator to activist.
Something happened in that screening of It’s Elementary that became elemental to his thinking. In this moment of self-censorship and gay baiting, public school teachers were at risk of losing their jobs. So you can imagine how much courage it took for a middle school teacher to stand up, essentially out himself, and say that he was gay, his students came to him, with anguished questions, pain – some very likely related to their sexual orientation. ” And I,”the teacher said, “can’t refer them to services, support, or even talk about my life, for fear of losing my job. But honestly I am afraid that we will lose some of these kids.”
Robert said to me later – “We were lucky the right people were in the room.” But it was both luck and strategy that enabled Robert to use that moment to say to the school chancellor (who was in the theater), “You have to spend time and meet with this teacher and talk about the kids who are at risk for suicide. Really – whom are they supposed to talk with other than adults at these institutions?”
Robert said, “You need to make time and open up your office.” He pushed him for a YES… “Tell me you’re going to do that this week.”
Robert told me: “Judith, that combination, the right people in the room at the right time, the passion of the storytelling, the pressure, and the urgency of the moment all swirled together in this one instance. I was willing to risk my position at the film festival for that. And that’s what I want to do with my life.”
It was soon after that we created and founded Working Films. He was inspired by the catharsis, the one he personally felt and the one that took place in the room. The idea that you never have to leave “change” for chance. The idea that you can marry synergy, strategy and storytelling and come out on the other end with the core elements for social change and transformation. Sometimes you’d be able to measure it and sometimes you wouldn’t, but either/or, it would be there in the community. We wanted to bottle that feeling linked to strategy and it became Working Films.
Robert West… was and will always be, my “LESS IS MORE” man.
You have artfully, consciously and mindfully enlarged the definition of “life partner” — (beyond the beloved, committed live-in spouse or co-parent) to mean someone you co-create with, dream big with, take risks with, be your whole complete vulnerable self with.
Someone you go to the farmers market every Saturday with, play ritual games of scrabble with, take fearless Cape Fear river runs in a kayak with…
You have made many life partners in your all too short lifetime. Some you have known for years, and some for much less. But your less – is MORE.
You defied societies focus on finding “the one” to embracing and emboldening many to forge an utterly unique FRIENDSHIP, PARTNERSHIP, WORKSHIP, and FELLOWSHIP, with you.
None of them bound or determined by the amount of time, just the quality of it.
Which is why I can look around the room and see so many of your different life partners — who loved you Robert for, “being exactly who you are.”
On his behalf I have to thank and call out to Molly, Anna, Andy, Kristin, Cassie, and The Working Films Board of Directors, for your tireless selfless work to keep Working Films moving, strategic and working in this most painful of time. And to our long time comrades Shelia Leddy and Dianna Barrett from the Fledgling Fund who came all the way here to join us today – thank you.
AS FOR ME…
You, MY BELOVED FRIEND Robert West
You were, are
& ALWAYS WILL BE
MY partner AND GUIDE in all things engagement,
Be it REAL or R-E-E-L,
Always striving to be
Respectful, mindful optimistic and timely…
WAS and will always be
My “LESS IS MORE” MAN
WILL just have to be ENOUGH.
Tribute for Robert West
by Jane Bench
Hello, I am Jane Bench, and it’s my privilege to be Robert’s twin sister. It’s like winning the lottery. Robert is a “cheerful giver.” This is giving that reaches the core of others. Robert and I often joked that I trained him to be a giver because I always asked him for things. I saw and felt him giving all our lives. I saw it was not always easy for him to give like this, but it started at such a young age. It is just who he is. One of many example: I cried a lot in elementary school over little things. Robert never told me there was no reason for such tears. I looked over at him, and he always had his head turned to the wall, crying along with me.
We had grown apart in our adult years, as many people do. I am eternally grateful that my son, Jordan, transferred to UNC-Wilmington. On a visit to check out the school, Robert entertained Jordan and me all weekend, telling hilarious stories, providing lots of home cooking and introducing us to some of his wonderful friends. Afterwards, Jordan and I rode silently in the car until Jordan said simply, “I like Uncle Robert.” From a young man of few words, this was quite a compliment. That was the start of a great friendship between Jordan and his Uncle Robert. My relationship with Robert was renewed and flourished. Robert told me he loved his life, his work, his friends and family. I certainly understand as I had the privilege of meeting many of you over the past year. Robert summed it up by stating, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”
Last fall, it was time for Jordan to go to UNCW. My husband, Bruce and oldest son, Robert, drove 3000 miles from Seattle to Wilmington with Jordan-much too fast, but arrived safely in late August. Just a week later, Robert was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I asked Robert, “What can I do?” As always, Robert had the answer and said he would tell me exactly what to do, when to do it and that he had an excellent care team in Wilmington. I reminded him he was a man who loved his life more than most and loved others with the ability to show it more than most. He told me as he was on this journey, “Jane, remember that you said and did everything just right.” He was still taking care of me!
I know Robert is in heaven, or whatever each of us wishes to call it. I feel his love shining down on me every day. That’s why I say he is still a cheerful giver because he is still giving. I hope you all feel his love shining down on you.
Thank you, Robert
Tribute for Robert West
by Ted Winfield
I’m here today for myself of course, but I am also here as a representative of those friends that Robert made in Richmond. Those who knew Bob – when he called himself Bob – and have continued to know and care for him and about him. We always looked forward to his trips to Richmond; usually they were made to visit his Mother and his Brother Fred and the rest of his family. David Stover and Caryl Burtner are here I know from Richmond. The four of us would nearly always get together for dinner when Robert was in town.
In the months before Robert’s death, as you all know, he invited everyone to “be present.” He said it often, and he said it in a number of different ways. But of course he simply wanted everyone to come clean – to tell the truth, to share something that mattered, and to give him something “engaging” to think about – or more usually – to talk about.
In that spirit and, I think , to “set an example” for me as I’m sure he did for others, Robert told me a little bit more about his experience growing up – importantly, he did this in a way that I could relate to. He was superb at taking into consideration to his audience – whomever he was speaking to.
He said, for instance, that when we were growing up, that he would come over to my house, in-part to play, but also to receive the lavish attention that was given to him by my Mother.
Bob explained that boys, at his home, were an ever-present-commodity and that because I was the only son in my family (with three girls) that I received all the attention – and that he wanted some of it. He even went so far as to point out that I was so spoiled – so much so that I didn’t even notice that he had “taken my spot” – usurped the throne. He would sit and chat with Mom, and she in turn would feed him.
He told me this story as he always told a story – with one eye toward clarity and the other toward making the story interesting. But he also told me this, I think, because he knew that my mother was dying, just as he was. And he wanted to shine the light of attention back toward someone else – in this case – my mother and me – and away from him.
Shortly before my mother died, Robert wrote in one of his emails about a visit from a friend. He wrote:
“On Friday one of my best friends from Charlotte came and spent the day here. We worked together in Charlotte and we were close buds for 15 years. He moved and I have not seen him in about five years. We talked and laughed some about the past but mostly we talked about his Mom’s death a few months ago. Bob went on to write – “I share this, Ted, because he talked a lot about how helpful Hospice was in the last three weeks. He said they should have come in sooner, but once they were a part of the team – they were incredible. Is your mom taking advantage of Hospice?”
This remarkable attention toward other people – even as he was within the last few months of his life – was typical. And with this I can say that Robert was the quintessential giver.
Bob was a giver and that large part of his personality “THE GIVING” defined his relationships – his relationship to his family and with his friends:
It of course was the cornerstone of the work that he did at Working Films. It was the whole point of Working Films, as it will continue to be, and it was the “great thing” that, I think, that made his life worthwhile to him – this giving back.
Second, In addition to giving – he was an opportunist of the best sort.
The second piece that was so fascinating about Robert was his innate ability to “see” the fruits that could be got from a particular circumstance and to then hammer out, in a very practical way, a positive result. He was a giver, but he was a problem solver as well.
Once again, even, as he lay in bed, he found a way to turn that time and situation into a sublime opportunity to make positive things happen – to make his family members closer to one another (something very important to him), to make his friends comfortable with his imminent death, to make his brain-child, Working Films viable – as they were to go on about their mission without him.
Robert was a kind and giving man who had the tools to turn his goodness into a way of life. And this, I think, is what he was most proud of – his ability to enjoy his life and live it on his own terms while, at the same time, giving back to the world – and make a living by doing it.
David Stover (here today) and I went to high school with Bob. We played at the river a great deal, got in to trouble now and again. We were in what seems like an endless number of accidents. We shared one or two car accidents together and a boating accident as well. Robert stayed in Richmond after High school and went to VCU while I was in the army. After coming home we shared an apartment for a year or so. Robert managed a book store downtown. Eventually he took a job in North Carolina with a publisher. That move eventually lead him to Charlotte and to the Mint Museum. I had moved to Charlottesville and then to Seattle. It was during this early time in Seattle – when Robert was 25 – that he told me and others that he was gay.
I think that this was the beginning of Robert’s new and “real” happiness which of course fueled his desire to “come clean,” to “tell the truth” and to “be of good cheer.” He found, in Charlotte, a community that understood him and allowed him to flourish. He had found a new “second” home.
This new openness allowed him to breathe fresh air – to act in good faith, you could say – across the board. His friends in Wilmington and Charlotte can speak of this better than I can, but I think this honesty directed toward himself gave him all that was needed to feed and direct his incredible talents – his artistic abilities, his love for just-causes, even his organizational skills – and his incredible desire to give back to the world. I think that Bob become the happy, confident, totally engaged Robert when he was 25.
Robert very artfully wove together the things that he loved. He did this in a way that gave him enough time to enjoy his life – to travel, to enjoy the water as he always had, to kayak, to paint – and to simply “play,” however he wanted to play. He was very proud of how he allocated the time in his private world. He was a very rich man in this way. He did in fact fulfill the requirements of his imagination. He was, by his estimation, a success. And he was proud of his accomplishments. Just as he was proud of his family, his work, his friends. In short he did what he had set out to do.
To close, I will miss my friend, Bob. I will miss seeing him and calling him. I’ll miss arguing with him for long periods of time – over extraordinary minor things. I will miss him telling me how to set the table, for example. I will miss going fishing with him on the bay with Freddy and David. But I think mostly I will miss his laugh. Robert was a great deal of fun – especially when he chose to be silly. Mostly when he went into “Story Mode.” Mostly, after a glass of wine or two.
And I do hope that he is in a happier place. Partially because it always gave me joy when he was wrong (not often) – but also because Robert West is certainly one of the few who deserve to be pleasantly surprised.
I’d like to thank friends and family for helping me to be a part of Robert’s last months. It has meant a great deal to have met many of you for the first time and many of Robert’s family after many years – and I hope, in the future, to see more of all of you.
Robert lived a life that should be paid attention to. He was both happy and giving. The knowledge of his own death and how he approached it, only reaffirmed all that he did and believed in while he lived. In Hollywood cemetery, where Robert’s mother and his older brother Jay are buried, where we took countless walks and countless pictures, he has asked that his epitaph read “Constant Joy.” I think he, in his own mind, met that goal by giving to others while listening carefully to the things inside himself that made life rich and full.
I would like to thank Betsy, Julie, David Bill and Tom for taking such good care of Robert.
And my heart goes out to Fred, Jane, and Johnny and their families. Thank you for sharing your brother.
Please share your own memories and reflections about Robert with us. If you would like to honor him by contributing to the Robert West Reel Engagement Fund, which we set up with his blessing and encouragement last spring as a way to memorialize his role in founding the organization and his vision for our work, you can do so atwww.workingfilms.org/donate. Thank you!