Two of the most popular films of the festival concerned the last stages of life. Dick Johnson is Dead, by Kirsten Johnson (director of Cameraperson), has been eagerly anticipated based on festival circuit buzz. Having lost her mother to dementia seven years earlier, Johnson must now reckon with the same diagnosis of her father. To cope with the upcoming loss, Kirsten and her father, Dick, decide to make a movie about his death. Throughout the film, Dick dies from an air conditioner falling from a high building, being gored by a nail in wooden plank, tripping and falling, and perhaps even more that never made the cut. Of course, this film can be considered a comedy, but for anyone who especially fears the ravages of dementia and Alzheimer Disease, the viewing experience will be intensely sad. That shouldn’t deter anyone from watching. For all the films that attempt to forge a coherent and comforting path through death and loss, Dick Johnson is Dead probably stands above the rest. Still, the resounding message is that you can never make the death of a loved one less hard or less painful. But it can be happier.
The Mole Agent is considerably less heavy, but still contains plenty of moving and devastating scenes while injecting a healthy dose of humor. When a concerned woman hires private investigator Romulo to find out if her mother is being abused in her nursing home, Romulo hires Sergio, an 84-year-old widower, to enter the nursing home as a spy. He quickly attracts the attention of the residents, many of whom are women. His autonomy and sharp mind are marvelled at, and while he makes efforts to be a good informant, he soon becomes enmeshed in the lives of his fellow residents. He discovers that the management of the home has no problems at all, and that what residents suffer from the most is loneliness. Although the film focuses on old age, the differences between generations feel less important than the similarities. In ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, the residents act as if they never grew old. Most of the interactions recall the dynamics of high school, and while the irony can be amusing, it can also show the ways in which no one is prepared for the end of their life. Young or old, you can see yourself in these characters, and that results in one a powerful Empathy Machine, as Roger Ebert called movies.
The Viewing Booth cannot easily be categorized, and may just be my favorite film of the entire festival. The premise is remarkably simple, but the discoveries that result create a web so complex that multiple viewings are required. Israeli director Ra’Anan Alexandrowicz conducts an experiment with a fellow Israeli student at his University. The student, Maia, sits in a closed off booth and watches YouTube videos from both the Israeli Defence Force and the anti-Israel group, B’Tselem, while her reactions are recorded. She’s encouraged to watch any video she wants, and to pause to give commentary. Quickly we learn that Maia supports Israel, but watches B’Tselem videos to keep up with the other side. As she watches and gives commentary, Maia struggles to reconcile the undeniably egregious actions of the Israeli Army with her preconceived notions.
Suddenly the film becomes a multi-faceted study of media and viewer bias. Any time Maia witnesses something brutal at the hands of the Israelis, she reacts emotionally and empathetically, and then walks back on her feelings by justifying or looking for context that does not exist. Some time later, Alexandrowicz invites Maia back to view the videos again along with footage of her reactions, and Maia’s cognitive dissonance grows even worse. The revelations that come out are so numerous that they can’t all be accounted for in this piece, but the overall immutability of personal identity in matters of objectivity leaves in the viewer’s mind the kind of interminable inner-debate that make political films worth watching.
This has been an incredibly strong year for a world class film festival. The sad but reasonable cancelling of South by Southwest will mean a decrease in exposure for some of them. It is my hope that their success in such a wildly successful True/False will be a strong enough launching pad to get them to a larger stage, and that our readers here will take note. | Nic Champion