Documentaries are one of the mediums that were used by filmmakers to address a real-life issue. Where truthfulness might be a big expectation from the documentary audiences. The misconception of the documentary is that they claim to be a fair and honest representation of somebody’s reality. In actuality, documentaries are films about real life; they are not real life (Aufderheide, 2007). How a documentary filmmaker truthfully addresses real-life, however, is a never-ending discussion. With filmmakers and viewers constantly shaping the definition of what makes a documentary. In this article, I intend to understand the individual filmmaker’s intent through their mode of address.
This year’s Minikino Film Week’s Best Short Documentary Nominees offer us stories of tragedy, loss, grief, and the process of facing the repercussions of it. Themes that I’m sure people can relate to, especially during these hard times. These films don’t shy away from the bitterness of tragedy. Whether blatantly through monologues and interviews or subtly through experimentation of documentary conventions. I see the arrangement of these films as a spiritual journey of grief and acceptance. I’m writing this article as a walkthrough of my own experience and interpretation of watching these three films.
When everything seems like a blur.
Tragedies are a part of our lives. Tragedies could come into our lives out of nowhere or in a gradual process; a snowball effect of problems stacked up on top of each other. Whatever the case, tragedy came and blurred us in some sort of way.
Ben Voit’s Night Upon Kepler 452B (2019) follows a group of men helping the homeless of a town in Germany. Having no place to sleep, the homeless often sleep on the streets with the risk of dying from hypothermia. I respect the filmmakers for how they brought this issue without patronizing the audience. They instead showed us an emulation of the helpers and the homeless’ experience being out in the cold night. The use of blurry visuals and unconventional compositions creates an overall uneasy feeling. The cold, feverish, and dizzying feeling one might get from hypothermia. It deserts the expected documentary conventions and uses a more impressionistic method. The narrative also pushes the audience to focus on the experience of emptiness and hopelessness of a desolate cold space. Yearning to be brought away to a warmer, better place.
This also brings us to the title of the film itself, which referenced a potentially habitable super-Earth exoplanet, Kepler 452B. Kepler 452B was briefly mentioned in the film through a news broadcast. This referencing may seem random, but it provides an additional layer for understanding the presented reality. The relation of Kepler 452B to the men’s operation of transporting the homeless could be interpreted in several ways.
Kepler 452B could be seen as a symbol of hope; a better place for the homeless to thrive. It could also be seen as a distant, unobtainable utopia; knowing that it’s located 1,402 light-years away from Earth and will roughly take 30 million years to get there. It is unlikely in the near future that we’ll get a second home other than our Earth. Even if we somehow colonized Kepler 452B as our second home, will the homeless have a home of their own? The irony is that the people in power would rather find other planets to claim, rather than taking care of Earth and its inhabitants. The less fortunate could only hope, and the helpers are the ones who are trying to do something about it.
Night Upon Kepler 452B (2019) sets the tone for the other films in the program. Similar to how one might encounter a tragedy, the film bewildered me with its visuals and somber narrative. In the end, the film captivates me by dreaming of a utopia. I can’t help but wonder, will things get better?
Coming to terms with reality
Every one of us has ways of dealing with tragedy. Depending on how traumatizing it is, it could take a long time to make sense of it. So is the case with Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing (2020). This performative short documentary follows Sophy coping with the repercussions of her two older brothers that died from a young age. Years later, Sophy receives a box of family documentation that was hidden by her parents. The documentation consists of undeveloped photos and home videos. We then follow her efforts in processing the photos and footage, simultaneously facing her fears and traumas head-on. Hence the title; Still Processing.
I feel that Sophy made this film for herself as a way to cope, rather than to provide a problem-solution-type story to the audience. Sophy used this film as an attempt to find peace within the realm of death and grief. I adored her choice of not having to explain how she lost her brothers. Sophy showed grief as its own thing; a linear process of looking ahead.
I’ve always wondered, could making films be a form of therapy? Could it resonate with people without feeling self-absorbed? Countless directors have projected their problems and insecurities towards their work. Some became critical successes, others might create a detachment from the audience. This could be a factor of the audience’s personal experiences that influenced their resonancy towards an issue presented, or how well the filmmakers acknowledge their own feelings. In the case of Still Processing (2020), I didn’t feel a connection with the story. In its short duration, I didn’t get to know Sophy as a person. From the start of the film, it felt like I’m put right into the middle of Sophy’s process of grief. As the film goes on, I see Sophy being stuck in her own world. I felt a distance between Sophy and the audience. As if I’m merely a spectator of an act. It is important to note that I also have never felt a loss that tragic. However, I could see people with similar experiences as Sophy could relate to a deeper level. With no means to discredit her work, I think it boils down to the individual audience’s personal experiences to feel a connection with her story.
Still Processing (2020) reminds me of Mati Diop’s lonely quarantine film, In My Room (2020). Both films have similar conventions. Monologues, lingering static shots, and monotone landscapes convey the feeling of loneliness. Both films treated the audience as a spectator of a psychological display. I applaud Sophy’s courageous effort in showing her vulnerability, knowing how hard it is to her. The audience was given the privilege to be brought along her journey of acceptance—through cinema.
A glimpse of hope through the inner-child
In Still Processing, we see Sophy’s struggle to overcome her grief by herself. In Gevers Milou’s Why Didn’t You Stay for Me? (2020) we follow a group of children with similar experiences; the suicidal death of a parent.
The film explored grief through the eyes of children. This film was divided into 5 sequences. At the start of each sequence—in the style of stop motion animation akin to Tim Burton’s Coraline (2009)—we see a girl navigating through a poetic terrain of the children’s psyche. The terrains represent the linear process of grief. With names such as The Forest of Anger, Waterfall of Tears, Lake of Mirrors, Nest of Memories, and Unknown Territory. Those individual sequences/terrains then became the main topics of the interview with the children. The structuring of the sequences/terrains reminds me of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). With deeper analysis, one could make the connection between the poetic terrains and Kübler-Ross’ stages.
It was heart-wrenching to see these children sharing their deepest fears and insecurities. How they articulate their feelings shows the level of maturity of an adult, while still maintaining a child-like innocence in seeing the bright side of things. Though, this may be the influence of adult intervention. The presence of a camera and supposedly an adult interviewer could very well influence these children’s responses. It is hard to measure the authenticity of the children’s attitudes and mannerisms through this film, as we have no idea how much the filmmakers intervene with their subjects. The adult intervention was further supported by the ending of the film. It ends with a montage of the children cheerfully doing activities along with music that evokes optimism, showing a linear development of grief. This might be a naive view of the sensitive subject that is suicide. This also poses the ethical question of using the children’s trauma as a vehicle to move this film. The filmmaker’s intent on making this film could be as a way of telling people with similar grief or trauma that they’re not alone. However, I think it’s unjust to address the grief of suicide as a linear fairy tale that ends with sunshine and rainbows, as we will never truly know what the children feel.
Despite those questions I posed, I feel that the film has good intentions. The film reflects on the importance of a group during a time of crisis. Through the help of others, we could understand our feelings and navigate our way of grieving. While Milou showed us grief as a linear process, I think of it as only a guide to cope with it. People grief at their own pace, in their own ways.
It’s fascinating to see documentaries used as a way to articulate the abstract realm of grief. This arrangement of documentaries tells the story of accepting ourselves as fragile, sentimental beings. Constantly hoping for a better future. Tragedy comes into our lives. Sometimes, we can’t control it and end up blaming ourselves for things that weren’t even our fault. We tend to run from it as an attempt to make ourselves feel better. While being in denial may ease the pain, it’s only temporary. What we can do is to accept reality as it is and make peace with it. Through the help of others—particularly with similar experiences—we could create a safe space where people could be free to share their worries. Be it a support group, a group of friends, family, or an individual. In times where everything feels broken, it’s important to process grief at our own pace. That is when we truly accept our vulnerability and achieve hope.