In a way, Lucia Small said, her life and entire career as a filmmaker led her to make her final documentary, “Girl Talk,” which she completed while undergoing cancer treatment during the pandemic.
“It has been my struggle, my whole life, trying to find a voice that I felt comfortable with — that wasn’t alienating, but at the same time, wasn’t apologetic,” she told Ms. magazine this summer. “I’m still navigating that.”
“Girl Talk,” which tells the story of five girls on the Newton South High School debate team as they encounter sexism and gender inequities, “was a way for me to look at — when do girls, young women speak up or begin to shut down? That’s usually in middle school when hormones start hitting. But it’s societally with us from day one.”
A filmmaker who won numerous awards for her documentaries, Ms. Small died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 19 while in hospice care in Lincoln. She was 59 and lived in Jamaica Plain.
“I always marveled at how she would take risks with her work, with her skills,” said Amy M. Geller, a filmmaker and a lecturer in film and television at Boston University. “She never seemed daunted by pushing herself as a filmmaker and pushing herself — anything she needed to do to make the film better.”
Finishing “Girl Talk,” which had its broadcast premiere on GBH at the beginning of November, meant pushing past unique obstacles.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago, Ms. Small underwent treatment during the pandemic while completing the film, which can be viewed through the end of November on GBH’s website and will have its first national broadcast on PBS in 2023.
Each of Ms. Small’s previous three documentaries presented formidable challenges as well.
“My Father, the Genius” (2002) explored the accomplishments and travails of her architect father, Glen Small, in such detail that it was difficult for her family to watch.
With “The Axe in the Attic” (2008), Ms. Small and legendary documentary filmmaker Ed Pincus produced both an intimate portrait of those who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and an unswerving examination of their own privilege as white artists making a film about a disaster that disproportionately affected people of color.
“Some of the moral dilemmas the filmmakers face are eerie, micro-size versions of the greater national response,” critic Ty Burr wrote in the Globe in 2008.
And in “One Cut, One Life” (2015), Ms. Small turned the camera on Pincus and herself. She was grieving the loss of two close friends to violent deaths. Also, Pincus had been diagnosed with leukemia and died in 2013.
“It is an unflinching confrontation with mortality, grief, and loss,” Peter Keough wrote on the Arts Fuse website.
Ms. Small’s death, Keough said, “is a profound loss to cinema and to the local filmmaking community in particular.”
Gerald Peary, a film critic and former acting curator of the Harvard Film Archive, told Keough for his Arts Fuse tribute that “a very good case could be made for Lucia being the most important documentarian in New England in the last 20 years, certainly challenging the province of Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and other male filmmakers. All four of her feature documentaries hit the bulls-eye.”
Born in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 17, 1963, Lucia Lynn Small was the second of three sisters. She grew up mostly in the Los Angeles area, and also spent part of her childhood and youth near San Francisco and in Michigan.
Ms. Small was a young girl when her mother, Joanne Martha Wood Small Eggert, a retired paralegal who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., and her father, who lives in Joshua Tree, Calif., divorced.
“She was always trying to make peace in the house and get everyone to get along,” said Ms. Small’s sister Julie Small of El Cerrito, Calif., a public radio reporter.
She added that “the defining quality of Lucia is that she had this amazing ability to forge friendships and then to maintain those friends over decades.”
While growing up, Ms. Small “had an eye for beauty,” said Julie Silas of Oakland, Calif., a friend since they were 6. “She had this real strong sense of art. That’s where you knew she was going.”
After graduating from University High School in Los Angeles, Ms. Small received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Before moving into film, she worked in public radio, including helping to launch the NPR environmental program “Living on Earth.”
She was a producer for other filmmakers’ projects, broadcast via venues such as PBS and American Public Television, before and after she began making her own documentaries. Ms. Small also was an editor and story consultant on documentaries her friends made.
As a producer, director, editor, and camera operator, “she was largely self-taught and learned on the job and was a true artist,” Geller said. “I always marveled and was in awe of her because she could do all those things and could do them extraordinarily well. And she put the artistry at the forefront of everything she did.”
Friends said Ms. Small brought similar artistry to building and sustaining friendships in the film community and her personal life, even as her illness progressed.
“Despite all the suffering she had, she always worried about people and cared about people,” Silas said. “I have a list of 75 people who I’ve been giving updates to. I don’t even know if I have 75 friends.”
A few weeks before Ms. Small died, she traveled to California, where “Girl Talk” was shown in Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley.
“That film sparked fire in young people,” her sister said. “She was thrilled and so satisfied that it was a film that could actually change something and inspire more women to come forward.”
Not long after returning to Boston, Ms. Small’s health worsened.
Though her marriage to Laurel Greenberg, a documentary filmmaker and retired adjunct professor at Emerson College, had ended in divorce, “they remained friends and Laurel helped care for Lucia when she was sick,” Julie Small said.
At the end, she said, Ms. Small “died in the arms of her friends.”
A memorial gathering will be announced for Ms. Small, who in addition to her parents and sister leaves another sister, Christine Small Ferketic of Rancho Mission Viejo, Calif.; and a half-sister, Yasmina Dedijer-Small, and a half-brother, Erik Dedijer-Small, both of Waldport, Ore.
“I strongly believe that the power of film is in the asking of the questions rather than providing the answers,” Ms. Small said in Ms. magazine about “Girl Talk.”
She wanted to keep asking those kinds of questions with more films, despite the cancer diagnosis.
When her doctors told her " ‘there’s nothing more we can do,’ she said, ‘Really? I thought I was going to beat this, but if I’m not going to, I’m prepared to walk through that door,’ " Julie Small said.
Ms. Small wanted nothing more than to keep living.
“The world is in tumult, everyone around is depressed, and this was someone who still wanted to live. She wanted to live and knew how to appreciate everything in life,” Silas said. “She said the other day that cancer made her see beauty in everything.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.