For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to get a first-hand account of what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s disease. But Alan Berliner’s documentary comes awfully close. Kristy Hutter reviews IDFA’s grand prize winner First Cousin Once Removed.
Over five years, Alan Berliner documents the enduring struggle facing his mentor and cousin Edwin Honig, the renowned poet, translator, lecturer and founder of the Graduate Writing Program at Brown University. What we are left with are repetitive epiphanies, candid, yet playful observations, and most notably, fleeting moments of clarity that give us a glimpse into the once sharp mind of an academic.
For simplicity’s sake, the majority of the documentary revolves around several interviews with Honig, spanning five years. Beliner visits him on a regular basis, asking the same questions each time to track the consistency of his responses (and as an editorial technique, it works beautifully). Honig’s predictable answers assure the viewer of the authenticity and severity of his memory loss. It also gives the film a sense of routine and regularity, mirroring the consistent lifestyle an Alzheimer’s patient requires.
But amid this routine and regularity, Honig’s inner poet emerges, generating some of the film’s most beautiful moments. Unaware of his career as a writer, he instinctively recites haphazard prosaic musings from the top of his head, perhaps proving that neurological disease does not steal creativity from the talented, while reinforcing the mysteries of the brain.
Even more haunting are the old stories Honig does remember. Throughout the film, he recounts the trauma of losing his three-year-old brother when he was young and reflects on the role he had in his death. He also constantly reiterates the anxiety he feels over his estranged sons’ dissatisfaction with his own role as their father and what they classify as his inability to love them. As often happens with Alzheimer’s patients, he remembers specific details from his earlier years but can not remember what happened yesterday. These past moments though make the viewer wonder if these spine-chilling memories are all Honig has left.
It isn’t often that the media puts a real face to Alzheimer’s. Even rarer is the opportunity to spend a feature-length film’s worth of time watching and listening to one person who suffers from the disease. The ethical issues raised when filming someone who cannot remember giving his or her consent ten minutes after it has been given are abundant. But Beliner addresses those concerns early in the film, citing Honig’s acute interest in the capabilities of the human mind and the fact that an earlier, more able Honig would have consented. The result is sensitive and insightful.
Emotional reaction aside, this film is important. According to the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK, one in three people over the age of 65 will develop dementia and the number of people living with dementia, which currently stands at 800,000, is forecast to double in the next 40 years. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia (62%) and currently it cannot be prevented nor cured. It causes those afflicted to “unlearn” the most basic tasks, this includes the ability to speak.
If science cannot yet cure the disease, it is important to be aware of its impact. Beliner’s film is a good place to start. It goes beyond the facts and figures and gives us an endearing, often entertaining, personality, who, though he may not remember being filmed, is certainly unforgettable to us.
See the video below for an interview with filmmaker Alan Berliner by POV – the Independent Documentary Film Series on PBS. In this interview, Berliner talks with POV Series Producer Yance Ford about the meaning of family, and the importance of collage and serendipity in his work.