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Portrait of dementia

How to portray the life world of a person with memory impairment?


I Am Not From Here
Directed by Maite Alberdi

In the opening of Alexander Dovzhenkos Earth (Zemlya, 1930) we meet an old man lying dead. He looks happy and dies in the same pile of apples that children sit and eat. Life and death seem to be in harmony, two sides of a natural life cycle. And when it is cut from the man's death to the people who mourn this death, yes, their hysterical attacks appear as an inappropriate reaction.

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Thanks to Dovzhenko's montage, his unconventional picture-to-picture movement, which bridges between different ages and juxtaposes proud human bodies with shimmering dandelion heads, we have seen something they have not seen: how the man died happily and in harmony with his surroundings and circumstances. Just through the montage, we experience "his" world and understand that he felt an affinity even in the loss of life that death marks.

One of the filmmakers that Dovzhenko showed us was that film can create a non-linear sense of time that can come closer to a lived sense of reality than classical linear time. In the opening of Earth one can experience confusion if one expects a traditional logical – that is, linear – temporal relationship between images; linearity is sacrificed to express an emotional experience of belonging, a feeling that goes across chronological time and our rational idea of ​​life and death.

Unrelated observation. In the observational documentary I Am Not From Here (Maite Alberdi and Giedre Zickyte, 2015), who recently started their festival life and won one of the main prizes during the Swiss festival Visions du Réel, we see a similar principle in play, although the film sheds light on the exact opposite: a lack of feeling belonging at the end of the road.

We follow a period from the last phase of life of an elderly woman who is struggling to find belonging in a nursing home in Chile. Originally from the city of Renteria in the Basque Country, she does not realize that she now lives in Chile. At a leisurely pace, the film observes her alone and in interaction with other residents, and picks up frictions, which grow out of the woman's memory loss, other people's prejudices, unwanted flirting and a silence characterized by bad mood and absent interest in each other's lives.

Directors Alberdi and Zickyte have chosen a stylized observational style – without interviews or an interpretive commentary – that is somewhat reminiscent of Ruben Östlund's view of social intrigue in everyday surroundings. Remote camera positions (even when we are close to our faces it is still as if we are far away) and the soft lighting that invites us to rest in the pictures, leads to a kind of "distant proximity" to the situations. We are encouraged to take an analytical look, but at the same time are invited into the rooms, as if we were tense and half-hearted tourists visiting.

Can more dementia-friendly societies be facilitated by fighting stereotypes?

The film has no unambiguous, easy-to-understand logic in its structure: We see the woman and other residents in different situations that are detached from each other, and rarely get the feeling of a particular continuity between these. We move calmly and calmly from one situation to another; and in the temporal nebula which grows almost imperceptibly, it is as if the same situations are repeated again and again, only in small deviations. The film's observation and structural composition find no one clear affiliation to the place and time we are in – just like the woman herself.

I Am Not From Here – whose multifaceted title possibly refers to a collection of essays from 1985 by the same title by the Basque author Joseba Sarrionandia – sacrifices temporal and spatial clarity for us to approach the demented woman's disharmonious and alien sense of reality – as Dovzhenko asked us to empathize with the dying man sense of belonging. At the end of the film, we return to almost the same situation that we watched in the beginning – curious close-ups have, however, been replaced with a measured overall picture – and we have to ask ourselves whether it is the objective time or just the woman experiencing the scene for the first time .

Distant discomfort. In the recently published collection of essays Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness (2015) it is pointed out how traditional forms of storytelling can be incompatible with representations of dementia. As media researcher Scott Selberg suggests in his essay, dementia is something that "disrupts storytelling in itself" – partly because time experience does not follow the rationally linear structure that typically characterizes narratives.

In the text "Challenging Representations", the authors point out that mainstream films are particularly predisposed to maintain stereotypes, as representations of psychological problems are usually adapted to a conventional and dramatic narrative structure rather than the other way around. They also point out that "melodramatic, sensationalist or emotionally manipulative representations are more profitable than those seeking 'authenticity'." This makes it easy for filmmakers to link a problem such as dementia to one or two easily comprehensible characteristics that fit into dramatic patterns.

The book's introductory chapter asks: Can more dementia – friendly societies be facilitated by combating stereotypes? In our "hypercognitive societies" we may need films that avoid adapting – and thus quickly simplifying and stigmatizing – psychological problems to easily comprehensible, rationally conceived conventions. Can films that seek an "authentic" representation of a demented person's world of life expand our capacity for empathy and implicitly express a critique of our "hypercognitive society"?

I Am Not From Here, which is the result of a transnational collaborative project under the auspices of CHP: DOX LAB (two filmmakers from different countries develop and create a film together, with a low budget and encouragement to experiment), opposes at least simplifying representations of dementia. The film's ambiguous chronology and distant observation prevent us from gaining easy access to the film's (or the place's) 'reality', and invite us to take part in the woman's alienation.

Lack. Something similar is happening in the sketchy documentary Early morning 26th January 2011 (Brodersen, 2016), which was shown during the Short Film Festival in Grimstad this month. Here the director tries to approach his father who has experienced a near-death experience, and who struggles to remember this experience.

First, the son tries to reconstruct the experience through an ethereal animated expression, but it is reasonably useless. When the son then points a camera at his father while he has a traumatic attack at night, we experience something more close to life, and must admit that this may be the closest we want to get an insight.

The film's style change and uninterpretive observation of the attack create an uncertain viewer position. As I Am Not From Here it suggests that we have difficulty addressing the protagonist's idiosyncratic experiences in the current, cognitive societal discourses. Like Lucrecia Martel's masterful fiction film The Headless Woman (2008), these films show that by casting an unconventional view of memory failure, we can indirectly see a societal as well as a human deficiency.

Teaches film studies at NTNU Email endreeid@gmail.com

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