Let's Talk about Death By Barbara Kosecka
Forgive me if the title of this text sounds too outspoken, but I feel it’s warranted by the films shown in Cracow this year. Not only do they address the theme, but they confront the viewer with it as straightforwardly as possible.
True, the immortal topic has always been present at this festival, as it regularly haunts other documentary events. Deaths at wars, guerilla combats, extermination massacres; the inconceivable deaths of children and the defenseless; all these have been dramatically recalled, reported, sometimes even witnessed in shattering documentaries. The theme reached its sublime peak in 1997, when the festival jury awarded Thomas Stenderup’s Portal to Peace (Fredens Port) — a poignant coverage of a grave excavation in Brazil, elevated by the most accurate music of Mozart’s “Requiem”.
Those films appeal through individual, concrete death, where the act of witnessing compels the viewer to painful compassion, rather than contemplative debate. Strangely enough, war — the most prolific arena of violent death – was hardly represented at this year’s short competition program, either in the national or international selections. With the exception of a Swiss documentary, Mano Khalil’s David the Tolhildan (Davide Tolhildan), the Cracow Film Festival audience has for one year been spared from the unbearable company of rage caused by violence, but not from thinking about death. It hits back in some of the most astonishing films selected for the festival.
Should we fear it? asks Malgorzata Szumowska in her recent documentary which interviews villagers in the remote Polish countryside. Even though the title — Nothing to Be Scared Of (A czego tu sie bac?) – is a little tricky, quoting a woman referring to a dead body rather than the body’s death, there’s something comforting in this film. We are indeed scared, but we also wonder, loathe and eventually laugh listening to the expert opinions on how to die, how to comfort the dying, how to deal with the corpse and ultimately bury it. Simple people talk about this fundamental-yet-simple issue and – led by those who seemingly fear less – we feel relieved. One level of the hysteria mounting around human mortality is eliminated, at least for a time.
If those villagers are prepared for death, it comes as a shocking surprise in the Hungarian vérité documentary Escape into Love (Menekülés a szerelembe). Director Edit Kõszegi couldn’t have possibly known the tragic end of the story when she began to follow her subject, a temperamental Roma widow who’d lost her beloved husband to cancer. Taken by the social and emotional dilemma raised by her new love affair, we are violently shocked by Eta’s premature death at the end of the film. Both moved by the fate of the main character and anxiety-ridden by the crash of the plot, we learn that she suffered a heart attack, literally dancing herself to death at a village hop. “It is my friend Eta who directed this film”, claims Kõszegi, but one can sense that there must have been something else at work – perhaps the thing called fate.
In any case, directing your own death must prove difficult, as it was pointed out in the brilliant (and hilarious) fictional entry, Olivier Ayache-Vidal’s My Last Role (Mon dernier rôle), where Patrick Chesnais tries to perform the most spectacular end of an actor’s career. Somebody called My Last Role the mirror image of The Existence (Istnienie), a highly promoted feature-length documentary by Marcin Koszalka.
Renowned in Poland for his acute and uncompromising films, Koszalka had made the acquaintance of a Cracowian actor, Jerzy Nowak, who had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Nowak made the almost unprecedented decision to donate his corpse to a Silesian clinic, for medical experiments and lectures. “I’m doing it for fame”, says Nowak in the beginning of The Existence, and even if this confession cannot be taken seriously – as confronted with the lethally serious subject — we realize within this complex film that it cannot be treated as just a joke, either. Nowak dares to speak of his own death openly (which does not improve the emotional state of his depressed wife. We start to be more and more fascinated by his personality, even though he sometimes says things which are simply untrue: At one point, he declares “I don’t care what will happen to my corpse at all”; the film follows this with his inquisitive visit to the clinic’s morgue.
This would be a completely different film had Koszalka stayed with his character in all scenes. But the director decided to shoot some footage in the clinic as well, actually showing us what happens to a corpse preserved for scientific purposes. Needless to say, it’s difficult to watch, but despite all the shocking imagery, no ethical boundaries are crossed. The Existence is not an excellent film, but it’s still extraordinary: However spiritual we are, we can’t ignore the body — and, paradoxically, Koszalka’s documentary proves that these two things cannot and must not be separated.