An intimate and at times uncomfortable portrait of Alzheimer’s, First Cousin Once Removed tracks American poet Edwin Honig’s losing battle with the disease. The latest work of director Alan Berliner, winner of three Emmy Awards and an IDA Documentary Award, has got all the hallmarks of his previous critically acclaimed work – snappy editing, staccato sound effects, a typewriter motif, and a deeply personal exploration of his family – a process he calls “taking DNA from one film to the next.”
Berliner’s distinctive editing process gives his work a signature style, a process he is at pains to cultivate himself, refusing to work with an editor and wishing to make “how I tell the story as interesting as the story I’m telling.” This process stamps his work with multi-layered themes that thread intricately through the narrative.
The director deftly uses humour to soften what is one man’s tragic descent into advanced dementia. The playfulness of Honig’s character shines through, despite his difficulty in recognizing family and friends. As a poet and academic, the gradual erosion of Honig’s mental faculties takes on an added poignancy.
Berliner is Honig’s first cousin once removed. Their relationship is deep and affectionate, and the film shows true pathos, although there are times when it is questionable just how much we need to see of the indignity of such a cruel illness. Berliner justifies this by claiming that Honig gave his permission for the film to be made and would have approved of the exploration of humanity in such a fragile state. Yet Honig is vulnerable and at the business end of a camera, while Berliner is fully in control.
Not wanting to shy away from difficult subjects, Berliner wants “every film to be the hardest and the most wrenching thing I’ve ever done. And also the most fun.” Honig’s is the story of a brilliant man who suffered great tragedy in his life, watching his little brother get run over as he tried to cross the road. The figure of his dead brother seems to haunt Honig’s life and work, along with the death of his first wife and his estrangement from his second wife and two sons.
Alzheimer’s is a non-linear disease, meaning that a sufferer may be more lucid at later points in the progression of the illness. Berliner uses this to imbue the film with what he describes as “Cubist temporality”, a fluidity to time that allows past and present to interconnect, tracing the path of memory for a man who is no longer able to do so for himself. “This film taught me that memory is the glue of life”, Berliner says. “Memory is the translator of life and how we travel time.”
First Cousin Once Removed is, above all, Berliner’s exploration of what it is to be human. Without memory, how do we exist as humans and how much are we defined by our past experiences? For the director, his old friend and mentor was “baring witness to the abyss.” Berliner uses this testimony to create a profound and painful examination of what constructs the human soul and just how far the mind can wander before it is impossible to return to the self.