Documentary: Chronology and remembrance How do you portray the world of a person suffering from forgetfulness?
Director: Maite Alberdi

The start of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930) shows an old man on his death bed. He looks happy, and dies in the midst of a pile of apples from which children are eating. Life and death appear to be in harmony, two sides to a natural life cycle. When the film cuts from the man’s death to people mourning, their hysteria seems an unsuitable reaction.

Thanks to Dovzhenko’s montage, his unconventional movements from frame to frame, which bridge various ages and couple proud human bodies with lively dandelion heads, we have seen something they have not: how the man died happy and in harmony with his surroundings and circumstances. Precisely through this montage we are able to experience «his» world and understand that he felt connected even with the loss of life marked by death.

Some of what film makers such as Dovzhenko shows us, is that films can create a non-linear sequencing which can achieve a more intimate understanding of lived reality than the classic, linear time. The opening of Earth would seem confusing if you expect a traditional logical – meaning linear – temporal association between images; linearity is sacrificed in order to express an emotional experience of belonging, a feeling that works across chronological time and our rational ideas about life and death.

Detached observation. In the observational documentary I Am Not From Here (Maite Alberdi and Giedre Zickyte, 2015), which recently started its festival run and won one of the main prizes during the Swiss Visions du Réel, we see a similar principle at work, although this film highlights the opposite: feeling detached at the end of the road.

We follow a period in the latter life stage of an older woman who is struggling to belong in an old people’s home in Chile. Originally from the Basque city of Renteria, she is unable to comprehend that she is now living in Chile. In slow motion, the film observes her alone and as she interacts with the other residents, picks up frictions, sparked by the woman’s forgetfulness, other people’s prejudices, unwanted flirting and a silence caused by bad mood and a lack of interest in each other’s lives.

The directors Alberdi and Zickyte have chosen a stylised observational approach – no interviews or interpretative narrator – akin to Ruben Östlund’s look at social intrigues in everyday surroundings. Cameras positioned in the distance (even during facial close-ups it feels as if we are far away) and soft lighting inviting us to rest in the images, lead to a somewhat «distanced intimacy» of the situations. We are encouraged to gaze analytically, but are also invited into the rooms, as we are tense and half-hearted tourists.

The film structure lacks an explicit, simple logic: we see the woman and other residents in various situations detached from one another, and rarely do we feel any specific continuity between these. We move calmly and soberly from one situation to the next; and in the temporary mist which almost imperceptibly appears, it is as if the same situations repeat again and again, in smaller versions. The film’s observational and structural composition lacks a distinctive belonging to the place and the time where we are – just like the woman.

I Am Not From Here – whose multi-faceted title may refer to an 1985 essay collection by the same name by Basque author Joseba Sarrionandia – sacrifices time and locational clarity to enable us closeness to the dementia woman’s disharmonious and fluctuating sense of reality – the way Dovzhenko asked us to emphasise with the dying man’s feeling of belonging. At the film’s conclusion, we return to a similar situation to where we began – curious close-ups are exchanged for a measured, complete picture – and we must ask ourselves whether it is the objective time or only the woman who is experiencing the scene for the first time.

Is it possible to facilitate a more dementia-friendly society by fighting stereotypes?

Distanced discomfort. Essay collection Popularising Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness (2015) points out how traditional forms of storytelling could be incompatible with the portrayal of dementia. As media researcher Scott Selberg suggests in his essay, «Dementia in itself disturbs storytelling» – because the sense of time does not follow the rational chronological structure which traditionally characterise stories.

The authors of «Challenging Representations» indicate that mainstream films are particularly inclined to maintain stereotypes. Representations of psychological problems, as a rule, are adapted to a conventional or emotionally manipulative narrative structure rather than the other way around. They also suggest that  «melodramatic, sensationalist or emotionally manipulative representations are more profitable than those seeing ‘authenticity’.» As a result, it is easy for the film makers to link a problem such as dementia to one or two straightforward characteristics which fit into dramatic patterns.

The book’s opening chapter asks: Is it possible to facilitate a more dementia-friendly society by fighting stereotypes? In our «hyper-cognitive society» we are perhaps in the need of films that avoid adapting – and thus quickly simplify and stigmatise – psychological problems to easy, rationally devised conventions. Are films which seek an «authentic» representation of the world of dementia-suffering people able to expand our empathetic abilities and implicitly express a critique of our «hyper-cognitive society»?

I Am Not From Here, the result of a trans-national collaboration directed by CHP:DOX LAB (two film makers from different countries develop and create a film together, on a low budget and encouraged to experiment), is at least fighting a simplistic portrayal of dementia. The film’s ambiguous chronology and distanced observation obstructs an easy access to the film’s (or location’s) «reality», and invite us to take part in the woman’s alienation.

Deficiency. Something similar occurs in the sketch-like documentary Early Morning 26th January 2011 (Brodersen, 2016), screened this month at the Norwegian Short Film Festival in Grimstad. Here, the director tries to get close to his dad who experienced a near-death experience, but is struggling to remember it.

At first, the son attempts to reconstruct the experience through an ethereally animated expression, but this proves fairly pointless. When the son later aims the camera at the dad as he is suffering a traumatic attack during the night, we experience something closer to life, and have to admit that this is perhaps the closest we will ever get to an insight.

The changing style and inexplicable observation of the attack create an uncertain viewing position. As in I Am Not From Here, it suggests how difficult it is for us to show the main character’s idiosyncratic experiences in the usual, cognitive societal discourses. As in Lucrecia Martel’s masterly fictitious film The Headless Woman (2008), these films show how we, through casting an unconventional eye at forgetfulness, indirectly can see a societal as well as human deficiency.