Krakow Film Festival 2024

Exploring the boundaries of the human

DISABILITY / Seeing and watching can be done in many different ways.

When You Are Close To Me is a courageous and subtle representation of people with disabilities that challenges the common understanding of communication and human nature. It will make you rethink your expectations about scientific development and remind you of what Covid-19 made you forget – the love for other people.

When You Are Close to Me, a film by Laura Viezzoli
When You Are Close to Me, a film by Laura Viezzoli

To be better

Science and technology have an ever more significant role in the 21st Century. We believe that innovations will help us improve and eventually make us better as humanity and as human beings. For example, we will move efficiently with driverless cars and live sustainably in smart cities. As always, technological advancement is also causing concerns. Amidst the irrational fears incited by the Covid-19 pandemic, documentary films play a significant role in focusing on what truly matters. Some films released this year, notably How to Kill A Cloud (Tuijaa Halttunen), warn about tampering with the universe. Others, for example, Users (Natalia Almada), worry about future generations. The Gig Is Up (Shannon Walsh) shows how people involved in training the algorithms that should make artificial intelligence more human are working in terribly inhuman conditions. But none of the films showed the fragility of the very nature of the human so convincingly as When You Are Close To Me.

We believe that innovations will help us improve and eventually make us better as humanity and as human beings.

Beyond words

It does not happen very often that people cry in the cinema, in particular not with documentaries. Yet this is exactly what happened at the world premiere of this film at Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival last month. «This is love” was the very first comment from the audience after the screening. «Not love for a partner or members of the family, but other people in general, for humanity.»

When You Are Close To Me, a documentary portraying everyday life in a community of deaf, blind, and sensory impaired people, is truly outstanding. A documentary genre of films about people with disabilities began to develop years ago. Its’ distinct feature was respect for people with disabilities – they are portrayed as equal, without patronising or even creating the films themselves. Still, Laura Viezzoli, the director and cinematographer of When You Are Close To Me, introduced a novel approach to the representation of disability. There is no voice-over in this film, the camera stays on the same eye level with the film subjects, and the narration moves at a slow pace, giving the subjects enough time to express and present themselves. At the same time, this enables the audience to grasp the meaning of the events they observe. Step by step, we uncover the particularities of this multilingual microcosm where people communicate with each other constantly even if verbal language is only one of the codes, the least used. The rest of communication is passing through touch, presence and a multitude of individual languages carefully crafted to meet the needs of the Centre’s guests.

The film was shot at the Lega del Filo d’Oro, a Centre of international excellence for the assistance and rehabilitation of deaf, blind, and psycho sensory impaired people. It has a strong research department, developing the latest state of the art approaches. The caregivers are essential in this community, always close to the guests. As the director explained after the screenings, most of the film’s protagonists have been in the Centre for decades. With the help of the experts, they manage, despite their severe disabilities, to communicate with their families, among themselves and with the outside world.

Step by step, we uncover the particularities of this multilingual microcosm where people communicate with each other constantly even if verbal language is only one of the codes, the least used.

The music

The most amazing feature of this communication is that the protagonists, who are all visually and hearing-impaired, pay much more attention to other means of communication and are particularly attentive towards the images and sounds. They watched this film, with the director, before its premiere. And it is their love of music that connects them and gives substance to the film too. The film’s title is a verse of the song Il cielo in una stanza, composed by the singer-songwriter Gino Paoli for the singer Mina. Both are legendary musicians, and this is one of the most famous songs of Italian popular music. It serves as a «fil rouge» and helps establish an emotional engagement with the film. Milena, one of the film protagonists, often sings it at the top of her voice and when once Angelo V., another protagonist, sings along, it is a heartbreaker (and a direct contrast to the historical events – the song was first published interpreted by Mina, and later the same year by Paoli). Such moments make the audience intensely involved in what the creators of the film define as «a journey to the extreme boundaries of human communication.» Indeed, the film will show you that what we know about human communication is very little compared to what we do not know.

When You Are Close to Me, a film by Laura Viezzoli
When You Are Close to Me, a film by Laura Viezzoli

Technologies and human nature

Today, this is particularly important. The Covid-19 pandemic made us more aware of the importance of the human touch and contact with other people in general. But it also nurtured our misanthropic desire to be left alone. This process, of course, did not start with the recent pandemics. Long before ICT, before technologies of remote communication such as broadcasting and radiotelegraphy, technologies of travel and warfare helped humans overcome the distances.

Along with this development, avoiding direct contact with other people became possible too. So Covid-19 was almost a «natural» event, as it provided the decisive incentive for the development of remote technologies and introduced distance into the large majority of human activities – think only about the rise of the e-work or e-learning and e-health. Remote technologies demand to be used individually. We are in a group in the cinema, but we watch TV within the family, and when we watch video content on smartphones, we are alone. Film When You Are Close To Me provides a striking contrast to all this. Il cielo in una stanza sings about the enchanting presence of another person. When You Are Close To Me shows how gratifying it is to establish contact with others. It makes us feel how lonely we are in our individualistic everyday lives.

Playing god

The stress of the film is on the capacity of feeling with the heart, yet it also provides a rational reflection. Coming from the protagonists themselves, this reflection creates a radical rupture in the emotionally charged representation of this ideal(ised) community, pointing to its other, much more sinister side. Science can help us expand the boundaries of the human, but we need to decide what it means to be human in the first place and if we want to go this or another way. An important message to all who develop future technologies – keep the people in mind.

‘When You Are Close To Me’ screened as part of Ji.hlava International Documentary Film festival Opus Bonum competition

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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