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Meet the Salt Lake City mother who filmed her way through grief

Published May 17, 2017 10:03 am

Arts • Here's the mother figure at the center of Salt Lake City's community supporting young storytellers.
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The only song David Fetzer ever wrote for his mother has a lyric that underscores Betsy Ross' artistic journey: Tag. You're it, Mama.

That chorus rings as a simple throwback to the family game nights Ross planned for her four children and their friends, while also conveying a bit of Fetzer's quirky sense of humor.

But the direction in those words took on more resonance after Fetzer's death from a prescription-drug overdose in December 2012, which cut short his endlessly promising artistic career as an actor, producer, musician and filmmaker.

Tag. You're it, Mama. After her son's death, Ross, 60, retired from her job as a state attorney and set to work. With her family and David's close friends, she founded the nonprofit David Ross Fetzer Foundation to support young filmmakers and playwrights. "Betsy is able to continue to mother her son through supporting these artists," says Julie Mack, an environmental consultant who was a founding board member.

Last week's fourth annual showcase at the Tower Theatre screened five short films by emerging filmmakers, while celebrating the foundation's creative community, which Ross has fostered as a surrogate mother. At the showcase, you could hear Fetzer's voice as his songs were playing over the sound system during screening breaks.

Birthing the foundation was one step in Ross' impossible story of coming to terms with her son's death.

Beyond the foundation, in a separate chapter, is a mother's journey that's even more dramatic in the way it follows her son's lead.

Ross has invested two years in teaching herself her son's craft, using filmmaking to better appreciate his creative gifts, as well as the addiction that led to his death. Through interviews with friends and family, as well as excerpts from her son's films and music, she has crafted "Looking for David," her first feature-length documentary. The film is described on the Internet Movie Database as "part mystery, part love story and part societal critique."

Tag. You're it, Mama. The lyric resonated with Ross as she searched through photos and videos, learning the technical skills of filmmaking that her son had spent most of his adult life pursuing. "I realize he had tagged me in so many ways, and this was a continuation of his choice of life," she says, carefully avoiding the word "ironic," which Fetzer thought was casually misused.

"I'm a writer, not a filmmaker, but David always belonged on the big screen," she says in a voiceover in the film, which has been screened at indie film festivals in New York City and Texas. Addressing her dead son, she says: "I look for you in all the people and places where I can hear your echo."

Making the film, and her choice to narrate the story, has amplified Ross' artistic voice, which she credits as one of the gifts that came from losing her son. Although, of course, she adds quickly: "I wish I didn't have that gift."

Like son, like mother • The inspiration to start a nonprofit is the easy part. Building one, and especially funding it, is much harder.

In the same way, getting the idea to make a film might be the most creative fun of the entire effort. Making a film, as a mother dedicated to investigating the life of the 30-year-old son whose dead body you discovered draped over his laptop one morning, would challenge the emotional resources of even the most dedicated of storytellers.

Add to that the technical challenges of being a first-time filmmaker. A first-time filmmaker, that is, who is processing her fresh grief.

The film grew out of "David Fetzer's Last Act," a heartbreaking City Weekly essay Ross published in December 2013 that focused on her son's death and the epidemic of opiate addiction.

Over the years, Fetzer had become addicted to painkillers, originally prescribed for back pain when he was a teenager. In later years, as he was struggling with the pressures and debt of starting his experimental theater company, doctors prescribed Xanax and Adderall for anxiety and focus.

At first with the film, Ross was mostly seeking answers about her son's death. In interviews of friends and family, she stayed off-camera, not wiring herself with a mic.

If there was one lesson Ross taught her children, it was to avoid self-promotion; they might have learned that too well, says Rick Anderson, Ross' husband and the producer of "Looking for David." "When she jumped into David's past, it truly was a journey of discovery."

"We're super hypercritical of ourselves," says daughter Jessica Fetzer, 32, who lives in Missoula, Mont., where she is starting a graduate program in counseling. (The oldest brother, Scott, 35, is a Los Angeles-based musician who arranged the soundtrack for his mother's film, while youngest sister Carly, 30, one of the foundation's founding board members, is studying filmmaking at the University of Utah.)

Ross doesn't seek the spotlight, she says. Not that she's shy or humble, exactly, but she often finds herself analyzing whether she's seeking praise rather than speaking sincerely. One of the values she shared with her son is authenticity, which he was able to convey, seemingly effortlessly, in his acting.

"Davey understood completely what he didn't know, and didn't fear seeking out advice from others. He didn't let ego get in the way," says Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Company, where Fetzer played the restless, mysterious wilderness poet Everett Ruess in 2008's "The "End of the Horizon."

Like mother, like son. Or maybe like son, like mother. When David Fetzer was talking with you, "it was as if no one else existed," Rapier says. "I really understand, now that I've gotten so close to Betsy, where that came from."

Making the film helped a mother heal, while the journey of healing helped a mother tell a universally tragic story. One couldn't have happened without the other, friends and family say.

Eventually, deep into the project, Ross realized her perspective is what set apart the story. "Anyone can make a story about addiction," she recalls hearing from creative advisers, "but this story had more power because it was coming from a mother's heart and a mother's voice. I had to embrace that role, I finally understood."

What makes the film so unusual is Ross' sensitive approach to exploring the private, dark side of her son's creativity. "Her longing for her child is not complicated by rose-colored glasses regarding who he was and what he struggled with," Rapier says.

"I'm sure you're going to ask me about the doctor," Anderson says in an interview as we are talking about the film. "Everybody does."

One of the most emotionally layered scenes in "Looking for David" unfolds as Ross interviews the family's longtime doctor and friend, Jamie Longe. On camera, Longe tears up as he admits he missed signs of Fetzer's addiction. And yet the mother and lawyer behind the camera never turns accusatory. Despite her grief, "she wanted simply to know what happened," Anderson says.

To Rapier, some of the most powerful visual images of the film are those of Betsy's back as she walks through familiar Salt Lake City landscapes, visually guiding viewers to look where she's looking. "You get a sense of where some of Davey's generosity came from as an artist."

Mothering the Davey family • "The foundation is not about David, it's about the legacy of David helping others," Anderson says. That's a crucial distinction as the nonprofit launches its fifth year, marking its growth by hiring its first nonfamily staffer, associate executive director Ariana Broumas Farber.

The foundation's annual budget has increased from $20,000 to $35,000 and is thought to be one of only two funding sources nationally for short films, the format that can launch a filmmaker's career. Grant winners and board members are required to mentor the next year's grantees.

Utah filmmaker Nick Dixon received an equipment grant last year and has now screened "Mine" at 40 film festivals around the world. "Even the smallest film grants make a huge difference," he said at this year's showcase, where he showed off the Emmy statue he recently received for the film. "I wouldn't have this hardware without the Davey Foundation."

The foundation also supports a play development workshop at Salt Lake Acting Company, and an annual production at Plan-B, two companies where Fetzer had regularly worked. "It is successful by being so specific about who the participants are," says Rapier of the foundation's criteria defining emerging artists under the age of 35. "It truly gives every recipient opportunities they wouldn't possibly have at that point in their careers."

The idea began in the first hours after news of Davey's death began to spread. Ross and her family were surprised by scores of heartfelt Facebook posts by people all over the country who had been inspired by his creativity. He had a much broader creative impact than the family had known.

Simply, Davey was magic. "We were struck by how he made people feel really important, and he always set aside his own self — sacrificed his own time and money — to help his friends," Jessica Fetzer says. "That idea of collaboration, he seemed so good at it."

At the center of the Davey Foundation family is Ross, who mothers everyone. That's whether she's picking up a filmmaker at the airport, or making chicken enchiladas for a celebration the night before showcase, or outfitting the grantees' temporary frat house with just the right kind of snacks.

For their visit to Salt Lake City, grantees are housed together so they can get to know each other as colleagues. Many have gone on to work together on next projects. "We've been told by filmmakers — almost to a person — that the experience of coming here is the most warm and rewarding of their career," Anderson says.

But mothering isn't a term that sits quite right for Ross. She says she didn't birth the storytelling drive of the grant winners. She calls herself a supporter, and now after making a film and submitting it (and being rejected) for film festivals, she's a colleague. She can tell young filmmakers that everything's going to be OK even as they are making it through the expensive chaos — or is it the emotional hell? — of the creative process.

Ross grew up in New Orleans. She met her first husband, Robert Fetzer, a Utah native, in graduate school in Indiana, while they were studying comparative literature. They moved to Salt Lake City and went on to have four children.

In 1985, Ross returned to graduate school, attracted to the intellectual challenge of the law. She worked for private firms, the Utah Attorney General's Office and then for the treasurer's and auditor's offices, serving for 18 years on the state's public records committee.

Along the way, she wrote poetry and fiction, publishing book reviews in local newspapers. She was the type of mother whose warmth and curiosity attracted her kids' friends to the house.

"Honestly, anyone who doesn't fall in love immediately with Betsy Ross needs to have their pulse checked," says Jenny Mackenzie, a Salt Lake-based documentary filmmaker ("Kick Like a Girl" and "Dying in Vein: The Opiate Generation") who serves on the foundation's board.

Even after long conversations about the separate projects of the foundation and the film, Ross calls back to underscore: "This isn't a journey one takes alone."

"She's not just a participant," Rapier says. "She is the creator of community. You can see that anywhere she is. You can see that by anybody she touches."

She was touched by her son, tagged to pay creative support forward. Tag. You're it, Mama.


facebook.com/ellen.weist —

Collaborating, creatively

For information about grants or donations to the David Ross Fetzer Foundation, visit: thedaveyfoundation.org.

Reading • Salt Lake Acting Company will present a staged reading of this year's Davey Foundation grantee, Rae Binstock's play "Land of No Mercy," on July 31. The reading, at the theater company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City, is free. Call 801-363-7522 for information.

Production • Plan-B Theatre Company will produce Davey Foundation grantee Austin Archer's play "Jump," April 5-15, 2018, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Visit planbtheatre.org for information.






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