True/False is a documentary film festival in its 10th year that plays in my hometown of Columbia, Missouri. I, humble blogger, will write about the movies I see during my whirlwind tour of the festival.
The first movie I saw during True/False weekend was quite beautiful. It opens with birds singing, the sun filtering through the trees. We are in Chile, and children are heard laughing and playing in the distance. Quickly, though, the scene turns far more lonely. The camera lingers over men and women staring listlessly into the distance, some nodding off, all quiet and unmoving. It becomes apparent that this place is a nursing home. In these first scenes, a woman named Sarita is dropped off by her daughter. She explains to Sarita that this is where she will be living now. “Will you miss me?” The daughter asks. “I don’t know, I’ll have to wait and see,” Sarita answers. This exchange coaxes some laughs from the audience. Thus Sarita is left with the other women in this room. She and the others sit in the room, not interacting with each other or the staff. She is abandoned. This isolation, I soon learned, was a hallmark of this film.
This documentary follows several characters, but very little do they interact with each other or anyone else. There is Sarita, who is blind and has no teeth. There is Luis, who collects leaves in a red bag on the grounds of the nursing home, only he is unable to get around without a walker so the collection is painstakingly slow. There’s Dorian, who uses the pay phone in the hall with little luck and who scribbles reminders in his notebook of who to call. There are two women, Theresa and Morena, who interact the most out of everyone, most of the times reflecting on the hopelessness of their situation.
Then there is Juan, who runs a radio station in the nursing home. The ‘station’ part of the title is most obviously in reference to the radio station run by Juan. But it is also a reference to ‘the last station’ of these people’s lives: they are all faced with the inevitability of death everyday. Juan reads the names of the deceased over the radio, his words echoing through the halls. Juan plays sounds of the ocean, the rain, and the wind over the mountaintops on the station he recorded himself. He is there with his microphone set against these vistas, holding it out in his outstretched arm. This brings some modicum of comfort to the people living at the nursing home, whose days consist of sitting and sleeping and wishing things were different. Wishing their families would come. Juan wonders into his microphone, “Do they leave us here, or do they throw us away?” Juan verbalizes what the film conveys: the depressing abandonment by the people these residents love the most.
This film is beautiful. Every shot is lovely and grand and heartbreaking. A snail moves up a tree in the yard as Sarita sits in the background. A man lies sleeping as children play in the yard just outside the window. A man reads a story of his own making about a dying star, flashlight shining onto his typewritten words. There is very little dialogue. The images speak for themselves, without the film being pretentious or overbearing. The part with the most speech isn’t even technically dialogue; it’s people praying. The camera pans over open doors, people shown with their heads bowed. They repeat the Lord’s Prayer, and ask God to look out over people they love, to bless their family. “I miss them,” one of them whispers. “My father, my aunt, my mother, my son.” She is praying for death (This is when I couldn’t hold it together anymore and started with the waterworks).
“Isn’t is funny? How we end up here?” one of the women asks the other, sitting at the funeral of a resident. Then people come in, unspeaking, and move the casket out of sight. The two women remain.
What is the takeaway from this experience? I left the theater hopelessly sad for those that died in solitude. We know that life is short; we must, because the evidence is all around us. But does that knowledge change how we act? Very seldom. These peoples families, even knowing their parents and grandparents were dying, rarely visited. I suppose this revelation of our unchanging behavior in the face of death made me uncomfortable and angry, and also powerless. I can’t do anything about these people who were left alone. I can only be there for my mother and father when they are in the autumn of their lives. I hope I am there for them, and am not left wishing I had acted differently.