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Cecil and Carl – A Short Film Review


Release Date: USA 2015
Director: Elvis León - Gastón Yvorra
Writer: N/A - Documentary
Cast: Cecil Bethea - Carl Shepherd

Posted August 14, 2016 by

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Cecil and Carl A Short Film Review:

The documentary short, ‘Cecil and Carl’ is everything you would want from the genre, a piercing snapshot of the human condition, affectionate and wryly humorous. It is a reminder of what the best of us are capable of: unconditional love.

The subject is a same sex relationship rendered unequal by infirmity. Carl Shepherd has dementia. We meet his long time partner, Cecil Bethea, at a time when he is contemplating selling his twelve room 19th century two storey townhouse that is constantly in need of small repairs. Cecil makes regular trips to the Spearly Center, the care home where Carl resides. He shaves him and takes him out for walks, especially to the Little Man Ice Cream parlour (great name). Carl still recognises his partner and associates him with cigarettes and chocolate – we rarely see Cecil himself without a cigarette on the go. It is Cecil’s dream that he can buy a smaller place into which Carl can move back.

The directors Elvis León and Gastón Yvorra capture an intimacy between two men who are aware of the camera. Their film is a 14 minute and 35 second portrait of endurance.

Cecil mentions how they met in a gay bar and defines the start of their relationship – as effectively a marriage – as the date on which their lease was signed, over 43 years ago. Cecil describes Carl as the clever one, fashioning an urn that won top prize at a state fair. ‘I have problems moving from two to three dimensions,’ confesses Cecil – a challenge not shared by the film that is entirely three dimensional. Carl won the prize two more years in a row and then stopped entering: job done.

The couple has already been the subject of an award winning June 2013 Denver Post article ‘Four decades together in sickness and in health’ by Lisa Kennedy and Craig F Walker. From that we learn that they shared a military background – perhaps unsurprising since the Vietnam War was still being waged in 1969 when they met. Carl suffered a stroke in December 2011 and Cecil had been his ‘wheelchair chauffeur’ (as the article puts it) ever since. Incidentally, before his infirmity, Carl quilted.

We learn a little about the laws that pertain to dementia sufferers – Cecil had to apply for custody of Carl, which he shared with another man (Gary) owing to his own old age – he is in his 80s. Such issues don’t come up for heterosexual married couples.

The house is as much a character as Cecil. When he confesses his deepest fears, he is shown at a distance amongst the clutter. The setting reflects his frailty.

At the end of the film, images are replaced by captions. The effect is startling and powerful, conveying the difficulty of turning dreams into reality. From the closing credits – not a second of the film is wasted – we learn that Cecil had a recent activist past (we see a newspaper clipping of him under arrest). In the final post credits scene there is another surprise.

Exquisitely photographed Laffrey Witbrod with an unobtrusive reflective score by Neil Lyons, ‘Cecil and Carl’ affirms a belief in the rightness and normality of same sex relationships. It feels universal. It also begs the question: did the directors have enough material for a feature. ‘Cecil and Carl’ could be the best documentary about old age since the Maysles Brothers’ ‘Grey Gardens’

‘Cecil and Carl’ is screening in the ‘Queering Families’ short programme, 14:00, Saturday 3 September 2016, DIY Space for London, 96-108 Ormside Street, London SE15 1TF. For tickets log on to:


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Larry Oliver
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