When life is good and all goes well, promises of commitment come easy. All couples start their life together with a sense of wonder and the feeling they have a long time ahead. But what if life shows up with a change of plans that transforms the freedom and openness irreversibly? What if you are asked to give up everything you are, and want, to face this challenge? How does love change then? What would you do? Who would you be?
A decade after her 2008 debut feature No More Smoke Signals, Fanny Bräuning’s new film The Journey – A Story of Love touches on all these questions and is perhaps one of the most personal and intimate documentary films you will ever see.
Adjustments and will
Two decades ago, suffering from multiple sclerosis, Bräuning’s mother, Annette, fell into a coma. After this, she remained paralyzed from the neck down, completely dependent on caretakers and on the relentless and unabated dedication of Bräuning’s father, Niggi. The option of putting Annette in a hospice was never an option for him. He embraced his new role fully, he quit his job, and he adapted. And despite it all, they both never stopped living life. Life only changed, requiring big adjustments and a lot of will.
Through intimate shots, interviews, family footage, and photos, the film tells the unimaginable and inspiring story of Annette and Niggi’s love. It is a story of two people who took «through good and bad, until death do us apart» and applied it to their life.
Life only changed, requiring big adjustments and a lot of will.
Now in their sixties, Annette and Niggi make the most of what is possible, still traveling – against all odds – in a caravan transformed by Niggi to fit Annette’s needs. As they age, taking care of Annette gets more difficult for Niggi, and her illness is expected to progress even more.
A happy life
The family archive of images and videos showcase a happy life – a couple of artists and their children, traveling, working, smiling and enjoying the outdoors. Their past looks warm and happy; they lived through careless times of normality and easiness, the shadow of Annette’s MS looming, but not there yet. It is the contrast between then and now that makes their story extremely powerful because it brings the realization that happiness does not safeguard against tragedy. Their story could become ours too.
Annette’s MS took her life as she knew it, and left her with a new one, a life in which only her eyes and mind are still hers. And in the process, it changed most of Niggi’s life too. He stopped working as a photographer because he felt he couldn’t do both photography and take care of Annette well. «This is more important», he tells his daughter behind the camera, referring to the full-time care he gives his wife, no trace of regret or self-pity on his face.
Yet, his creative urge is part of who he is. The camera captures him taking photos constantly, a man that doesn’t indulge in self-pity or fantasies or what could have been, but who is a creative at heart. A man who, when faced with a choice between pursuing his calling and devoting himself to his partner, chooses the latter, turning his creative calling into an endeavor to make their lives worthwhile, and as meaningful and beautiful as they can be.
In the separate interviews with each of her parents, Bräuning doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions about their experiences, thoughts, and what lies ahead. Their answers are considerations, often grateful, and fully conscious, revealing the complicated layers of their inner worlds and feelings.
The impermanence of things
By following her parents through Europe, Bräuning heartwarmingly captures the coexistence of the weight of things and, at the same time, their lightness and beauty, like two sides of each moment, showing up at the same time, in changing amounts. We see Annette’s inert body Niggi cares and moves with effort. We see the burden of the inability to move and do the simple things. There is a sense of the inherent desire to remain a person and to seek pleasure in them both. And all their moments reflect both struggle and poetry.
The freedom to see places and the beauty of the landscapes they encounter are pleasures still accessible to both. They travel with acceptance and in a way they dare more than most other couples their age would dare even in usual circumstances. Yet the film does not present a cosmeticized version of their reality. The shots convey reality with dignity but they are not idyllic. They sum of them is a portrait of devotion and of not giving up, of making the most of what can be.
Their story could become ours too.
They both know what this life offers and takes from them and of each other. They don’t deny its weight, and they don’t shy away from all the meanings and limitations that both bond them and restrict what is and what could be. It is their willingness to not give up for just a bit longer what makes everything possible. And The Journey – A Story of Love is an ode to that. It is an ode to the courage to lean in and chase the moment; a powerful reminder of the impermanence of things, the choices we at all times have and of what two people can make of the worse of circumstances if they decide they are both up to the challenge without fear.
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