While the Green Grass Grows has to be one of the most beautiful intimate portraits of ageing and eventually dying parents I’ve ever seen. Although the piece is incredibly personal, it must touch a chord with all of us. One can’t help but sympathize when the film director’s vibrant mother adds, smiling, «I am that kind of person who wishes she could be young forever.» Have we not all desired to live forever? And what is death exactly? «I’m hoping to find something that I can’t yet see», the author says, reflecting on who he was before birth. In his search, he turns to his parents, both sharp 90-year-olds still full of vitality and humour. Their level of consciousness can be seen in their reflections.
A therapist once told me that in order to heal, one must first attain awareness. The constant exploration of the world is not only an aim but also the driving force behind Peter Mettler’s films. «What do you think about us making a film that explores the world?» the author asks his father at one point. «You don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, but you move from one thing to the next, you react, you make connections, and you make discoveries.» «Doesn’t mankind already do that – they went from here to the moon – it is expanding your knowledge from beyond where we are», his father responds.
«Gesamtkunstwerk» is a term typically associated with Richard Wagner’s operas, in which words, pictures, music, and philosophy combine into a perfect synergy of oneness. It’s also an appropriate word to characterize Mettler’s work. This filmmaker is a born artist, a poet, and philosopher, a composer of light, image, and sound. Together with Jordan Kawai, the sound designer and coeditor, they form a winning team. With its deformations, the music has a fantastic voice as a narrator for the pictures, which are simultaneously concrete, abstract, and symbolic. The goal of juxtaposing sound and visuals is to comprehend the ungraspable, or «to make the invisible visible», as Peter Mettler chose for his 1995 book title.
Have we not all desired to live forever?
Cutting through time
By citing Kurt Vonnegut from his post-modern novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Mettler refers to one of his inspirations in how to work with time. «It is only an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another….all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist…». We think of everything in nature as something that exists in a cyclical form; it is rather strange that we conceive human life as solely linear.
Through moving over different time periods in a person’s life, we have a better understanding of what it means to age. Repeated portrait shots of his father in his 60s – and what a handsome man he was – are edited between passages of him battling on his deathbed. With this new perspective, I’ll never consider a 60-year-old «old.» It’s strange how days may pass so slowly, life can fly so swiftly, and then it’s your turn to leave. But to where?
Nature as a metaphor
Peter Mettler’s work repeatedly dispels the myth that humans are not a complex aspect of nature. He begins by introducing nature as a character. Trees standing solemnly next to frozen lakes, free-swimming jellyfish struggling through the sea, wind flowing through the forest, shadows caressing the mountainsides, and clouds racing under the sun.
There is a sequence in which water becomes a metaphor for human life. In an effort to safeguard glaciers, white plastic sheets are used to cover them. As the dirty ice fragments melt in the sun, water rushes into streams and rivers. Water has many names: glaciers, ice, streams, rivers, steam, clouds, rain, and the sea, but it is all water in different forms. It is an endless circle with no beginning or end. When we see snow falling from the sky, the 14th Dalai Lama is asked to explain reincarnation. «Consciousness has its own element in nature….and there is only one consciousness.» In other words, we are all the same. The point is we do not vanish; we just change form.
A film that leaves an imprint
I feel a little wiser after watching this beautiful two-and-a-half-hour piece. Even if the spectator is merely a perceiver, I feel as if I were part of an enthralling conversation. There is plenty of space in the narrative to reflect on one’s own life experience. The film is truly engaging, and it leaves a residue on the viewer.
A thought occurs to me halfway through the film. Nature will eventually outrun us; we are merely passing through. How could I not agree with the father’s observation, «I have a feeling that mankind, as we know it today, is not the final addition.” Yes, of course. Why should everything in nature evolve but not humans?
The screener reviewed premiered in Visions de Réel International Feature Film Competition and was the Grand Jury winner. It is a compilation of part 1 and part 6 of an 11-hour-long film series While the Green Grass Grows, which will premiere next year.