The poetic nature of memory

A guest at the recent DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv, acclaimed director Alan Berliner speaks to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about his latest film, which examines the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

poet Edwin Honig 370 (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
poet Edwin Honig 370
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
If you’ve ever met Alan Berliner, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker who was here to present his latest movie, First Cousin Once Removed, at the DocAviv International Documentary Film Festival, you’re not likely to forget him. And that’s ironic because forgetting – and memory – is the subject of his new film, which won the Grand Prize at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Talking to Berliner is so memorable because this celebrated filmmaker is so low-key and down-to-earth on the one hand and so intellectually adventurous on the other. Berliner virtually invented a new genre of documentary, one that combines archival material, interviews and evocative imagery to make a kind of cinematic diary. While his approach has been imitated often, by filmmakers who were at times sloppy and self-indulgent, in Berliner’s hands it produces riveting cinema.
He has turned to his family for inspiration in the past, with his films Intimate Stranger and Nobody’s Business, and also mined some of his own daily drama regarding trying to conquer insomnia in his previous film, Wide Awake. He lives in New York with his wife and son, who sometimes turn up in his movies.
First Cousin Once Removed is a both a portrait of Berliner’s elderly cousin, Edwin Honig, an accomplished poet and translator (he was knighted by the president of Portugal for his work and received a similar honor from the king of Spain) who drifted gradually into dementia, and an examination of what it means to forget parts of your life.
“It’s not a film I could have made with anyone else,” says Berliner, during a screening of his film at DocAviv.
“It came out of decades of family kinship and artistic kinship.”
In his cousin’s younger days, “We would have debates over what makes a great work of art.” But as the years wore on, Edwin, who died in 2011 at the age of 91, began having trouble with his memory and couldn’t recite lines of poetry that had once rolled off his tongue.
Edwin had been asking Berliner for years to make a film about him.
“I kept coming back and following him. He’s the subject of the film but he is also the object, and the co-author. It’s a duet about the power of forgetting.”
Part of the film is an examination of what Berliner calls “the three griefs” in his cousin’s life: the death of Edwin’s younger brother at the age of three in an accident Edwin witnessed and was blamed for not preventing; the death of his beloved first wife from cancer; and his estrangement from his second wife and their two sons, whom Edwin treated cruelly.
Some of the most compelling moments in the film are interviews with Edwin’s sons, now grown men.
“In a way, the Alzheimer’s throws some things into relief,” says Berliner. “What do you do when the person you need to confront can’t apologize because he doesn’t remember what he did? There is something transcendently cleansing in it.”
Wisely, Berliner explores the sons’ experiences but offers no movie-of-the-week style reconciliation, although he says, “I think for the sons it was ultimately quite helpful” to participate in the film.
“Edwin was a poet to the end,” he says of his cousin.
“You can take away words from a wordsmith, and you’re left with music, rhythm, tapping.”
Even in the last shots of Edwin, when he makes sounds rather than speaking, the sounds come in measured beats.
While there can’t exactly be a “spoiler alert” for a documentary about an elderly man who is clearly close to death, Berliner cautions against revealing a moment at the end, a kind of prank, that will “put a smile on people’s faces and would have appealed to Edwin, who was a bit of a trickster.”
While Berliner acknowledges that “it [Alzheimer’s] could happen to any of us,” and reveals in the film that his father suffers from Alzheimer’s, as did his grandfather, he found that making the film “changed the way I think about memory. Someday I might not remember being in Tel Aviv. I might not even remember that I’m a filmmaker.”
While that is undeniably a possibility, at least Berliner can rest assured in the knowledge that his audiences will remember his films, even if there comes a day when he does not.