The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) wrapped over the weekend with jury members Susan Froemke, Michael Glawogger, Maria Goos, Jørgen Leth, and Kenneth Turan presenting the VPRO IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary to Alan Berliner‘s First Cousin Once Removed. When it premiered at the New York Film Festival last month, Time Out New York‘s Keith Uhlich called it “one of the festival’s most rewarding entries.”
“The cousin in question is Edwin Honig (1919-2011), a poet, translator and once-eminent professor at Brown University,” explains David D’Arcy in Screen. “Honig’s memory and prodigious mind are giving out. He can’t recall much, but what he says can leap out as a quirky kind of poetry. Berliner forces viewers to wonder whether, in certain people, poetry is closer to the bone than consciousness.”
This is “the rare film that truly warrants adjectives like ‘courageous’ or ‘unflinching,'” writes Alan Scherstuhl for the Voice. “It is these things, to a fault. So frank is its portrayal of Berliner’s decline—the great poet wheezes and bird-songs in the rubble of his mind—and so scrupulously unsentimental is Berliner’s approach, that the movie will for many audiences be simply too much.”
Andrew Schenker in Slant: “Berliner uses a variety of techniques to present his subject, from thudding, if undeniably affecting, cross-cutting between video of the sharp-witted poet and translator in his prime and the empty man sitting in front of us, to a series of image-and-word streams that flash past the viewer and mimic Honig’s scattered rememberings. But none of these methods really addresses the director’s central quandary, his supposed inquiry into the way memory operates. As a result, we’re left with a dying, drooling 90-year-old man whose continual failures to recognize the people and objects that Berliner presents him with make the film feel like a depressingly fruitless, borderline-exploitative exercise.”
First Cousin Once Removed “deepens an oeuvre that has already dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships (Nobody’s Business) and insomnia (Wide Awake) by exploring his fears of senility to devastating effect,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Having played an accidental role in the death of his younger brother in their youth, Honig faced a grim world early on. The inner demons continue to develop when his 23 years of marriage culminate with his wife’s untimely death. A disastrous second marriage ends in divorce and Honig’s estrangement from his two adopted children, whose memories about their father’s rough parenting skills add details that Honig can’t bring himself. Contrasting these dark ingredients with the brilliance of Honig’s prose, Berliner constructs a profoundly complicated portrait that makes his cousin’s fading cognizance into a particularly dispiriting calamity.”
“In the film’s most exquisite sequence,” writes Anthony Kaufman at Sundance NOW, “Berliner examines the changing of the leaves outside of Honig’s window as a metaphor for the old man’s grasping at memories. What makes the moment stunning not only its beautifully delicate nature cinematography, but also the way in which it reflects Honig’s curious lucidity. Even though he’s beset by Alzheimer’s, sometimes retreating from language altogether into rhythmic, singing squawks, he frequently speaks with the kind of obscure language of poetry that he spent his life writing. ‘They change without you wanting them to change,’ he says of the leaves, ‘so that they have some kind of meaning you have to believe in… The changing of the leaves… Something moving all the time is a hard thing to get to know.'”
Other IDFA awards have gone to Malik Bendjelloul for Searching for Sugar Man (IDFA Melkweg Award for Best Music Documentary and the BankGiro Loterij IDFA Audience Award) and Esther Hertog for Soldier on the Roof (IDFA Award for First Appearance and the Dioraphte IDFA Award for Dutch Documentary). Here‘s the full list of winners.