Review 2. I Won’t Die

A documentary with a naturalistic approach to the subject of cancer recovery.

Watching I Won’t Die (Nem halok meg) means accepting its harsh reality. Asia Dér tells us the real and brutal story of Gabor, the owner of a famous art gallery in Hungary who learns that he has a practically incurable cancer. Maybe his complicated situation has a happy ending, maybe not, but once we accept that following it will be an uncomfortable ride, we immerse ourselves in a microcosm of pain where social status and education no longer matter. This story is against all social constructs: seemingly, from this factor it draws its strength.

There are no warnings about the extreme images deliberately included, as well as no easy-going introductions. This Hungarian documentary is all about accepting that suffering is an integral part of going through your one and only life. Having this in mind, Gabor’s journey, in which we are able to see every detail of what is happening to him – including post-op details – is a harrowing experience taking no prisoners.

Either accept it and do your best or be thoroughly beaten – that might be Gabor’s mantra on a daily basis. His case teaches us something more, as it proves that in such circumstances any shortcuts related to curing the disease would only affect the expected repercussions of his physical therapy. By following Gabor’s treatment and his personal subordination towards his new life, this documentary reminds us of observing an athlete preparing for an international competition. Watching the intimate moments – from his illness to his prolonged physical decline – becomes a rollercoaster ride with no seatbelts.

Although it takes a more promising turn in its second half – Gabor’s self-confidence in his own health and general strength seems both inspiring and startling – the ambiguity of the main hero appears to be perplexing. Gabor is inexorable, in the sense that even in his most difficult moments, he still seems to believe and does not think about other people’s emotions. All of the close-ups on his family members imply that Gabor has never really cared about his relatives; he has always been the one at the centre of attention. His forced aplomb feels staged and this is the reason why his sons chastise him; they believe he’s just wearing a mask that subdues his real self.

Contrarily, there is an emphasis on a naturalistic and crisp portrayal of his sickness, with either no empathy or actual compassion, instead of focusing on any sort of understanding for him. But here we are, somehow compelled by Gabor’s struggle. We root for him because we don’t feel the tangible affection from the main voyeur, Asia Dér. It is intentional: with our tenderness, we want to fill the screen’s coldness with our hearts’ warmth. The minimalist aesthetics stimulate us to be encouraged.

After I Won’t Die ends – whatever the outcome of this man’s struggle – we feel like we’re saying goodbye to an old friend. And that’s the inexplicable feeling that only cinema can elicit, in the most unexpected moments of our lives.

Jan Tracz