A musician with a bad case of tinnitus, a photographer without eyesight and a boxer turned painter, losing half of her brain in a fight. These are the emotionally engaging human fates, shown in the documentary Shoulder the Lion from husband and wife-directors Patryk and Erinnisse Rebisz. Patryk, born in Poland, is a well-known director und cinematographer. His wife Erinnisse is an experienced editor of television films and documentaries. Their first feature film centres around three very different people, who have got one thing in common: They lost senses or abilities, but never stopped struggling to maintain their lives as an artist.
The documentary follows Graham, an Irish musician, who has got tinnitus, a constant disturbing sound in his ears. Like an electronic insect, as he describes the pain in his own words. With this kind of sickness, he cannot perform on stage anymore. But he stays in the music business as a producer and, even after four years, he still hopes it will get better. We meet Alice, a nice, grandmother type older lady. She has turned blind, but keeps carrying on as a photographer. Making pictures on any occasion possible, even she is not capable of seeing the results for herself. And there is Katie, a former boxer, who lost half of her brain capacity from a brutal fight. After a long time spent in hospital, she had to learn to live again, not knowing even the basic things anymore. She never gave in and is now working again as a painter and sculpture. A not widely known fact is that her story was the inspiration for the Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby (2004).
In a calm way the three characters tell the audience about their formers lives and the time the disabilities began to affect their day to day business. There is no such thing as false emotionality, bitterness or even despair. There are only three charismatic people with a message of hope and the strong will to fight on. There would be no problem to just let Katie, Alice and Graham talk, the result would be a heart-warming and by any means very interesting documentary. But the Rebisz’s decided to use a stunning variety of visuals and sounds to underline the spoken words. When Graham explains his illness, his voice begins to mute or there is a constant high-pitched electronic buzzing in the background. When Alice talk about losing her eyesight, one colour after the other – that is because of the wavelengths of said colours -, the screen turn slowly black and white. This shows in great picture-compositions and a diverse variety of creative camera-positions what is really lost for the characters.
The running time of 74 minutes, divided evenly by the three people, is not long enough to dig too deep into their former and current lives. But it is more than enough to give the audience a good understanding of their situations and keeps up interest till the last second. The director’s are using original visual effects, sometimes in a surrealistic way, and also symbolic scenes. For example, in a not too subtle approach, Katie’s brain is compared to a withered sunflower and in a later segment this sunflower slowly begins to bloom again. The audience can of course deduce this change from the words of Katie, but the visualization also helps in the understanding. It is the unique combination of strong characters, innovative cinematic experience and the clearly uplifting message of hope that makes Shoulder the Lion an outstanding documentary.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2015