Digital devices are largely celebrated as the great filmmaking leveler, as their proliferation has meant anyone with an iPhone can (theoretically) make a movie. But what’s discussed less often is how these pocket-sized studios have influenced film form, especially when it comes to documentaries. Based on this writer’s (un-empirically proven) data, the so-called democratization of filmmaking these devices have ushered in also correlates with an increase in mundane, first person narration docs. Given the closest subject at hand is oneself, that these diarist tales of me-filmmaking are everywhere isn’t all that surprising. They do, however, represent the worst of what this explosion of cameras has done: caused us to superficially turn the lens back on ourselves. As such, in this iPhone era the key fact that filmmaking should be an intrepid undertaking, not a self-indulgent one is often forgotten. If this sounds idealistic, apologies, but is it too much to ask for a bit of inspiration and risk that goes beyond navel-gazing myopia? As if heeding this very plea, enter Joaquim Pinto’s What now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembra-me), which won the FIPRESCI jury prize at the 66th edition of the Festival del Film Locarno. The ambitious and experimental doc is the antidote to the filmmaking described above, as Pinto may point his digital camera at his navel, but ends up digging into his guts.
Summarized in the festival’s press materials as “a reflection not only on survival beyond all expectations but on love and friendship”, this barely begins to encapsulate the film. Shot—or rather loosely chronicled on various digital recording devices then masterfully woven together — over “a year of forced rest”, Pinto undergoes radical treatments for HIV and Hepatitis C. Ironically, the drugs that Pinto ingests cause him further harm, which alters his perception on life, pain and spirituality. During this time, Pinto and his partner, Nuno Leonel, chronicle the impact of these changes, resulting in a film that feels generously honest, as it is complex. In short: this is no typical survivor tale, rejecting talking head experts, manipulative tear-jerking moments and celebratory swelling musical scores. Indeed, the forced positivism of feel-good cinema is undermined from the outset, as Pinto overlays an X-ray of his decaying teeth on the road he and his partner are driving down. “So”, Pinto narrates, “I’m starting with a smile.” The surreal image not only lays bare Pinto’s candid and dark humour which infuses the film, but also neatly sets up the What now? Remind Me’s focus: the intersection between the physical body (those rotting incisors) and the limits of expression (the ghoulish grin).
This ambitious aim makes E Agora? Lembra-me far more than a diarist approach to doc filmmaking, though it never feels sensational. In one particularly evocative scene, Pinto relates how the drugs he is taking cause him to feel a pain that makes him constantly aware of his body. Beginning by attempting to express this feeling by speaking straight into the camera, the scene then changes. Pinto captures his body moving in time delay, creating a layering effect, as his frail form becomes something of a bespectacled, multi-limbed specter. The technique itself is not radical, but in the context of the film it speaks to the limits of language — both cinematic and linguistic — when it comes to expressing lived, sensory experience. Here, Pinto attempts to give a form to his pain so we can understand his bodily experience, yet this can never fully be. As such, we’re brought intimately in to his life, yet constantly aware of the gulf that remains. This is further echoed when Pinto, a longtime producer and director, at one point confesses: “I don’t know how to talk about film.” Here cinema feels oddly similar to his illness: central to his life, yet beyond expression; a structuring transcendental force. In these moments, the film transcends mere confessional narration and enters the realm of the philosophical.
As What now? Remind Me meanders — and amble it does, mimicking the very mundane rhythms of daily life — it eventually moves into a similar discussion about faith. Though hitting this perfect trifecta of art, body and spirit might sound too neat, it never feels forced. (Besides, the film is too amorphously structured to lend itself to easy narrative patterns.) And given the film’s risks, its loose structure only feels more fitting. Watching the documentary isn’t merely bearing witness to Pinto’s bodily struggle, but observing him grasp for answers that often are beyond his — and all of our — reach. What now? Remind Me’s twists and turns then allow us to become more entangled and lost in the questions that are raised, forcing us to look far beyond Pinto’s story — and ourselves. What now, indeed.
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2013