Endless kilometers – De Groene Amsterdammer

‘Sometimes the highly personal is not distasteful but impressive’, I wrote in2008 in response to Marijn Frank’s NFTA graduation film: Daddy ‘s gone…and Iwanted to ask you some questions. Due to the content and form of that filmabout a war-damaged father, whose silence passed on trauma, the title alonestrikes me again. Partly because, apart from trauma, death leaves all unaskedquestions forever unanswered. Then bitter realization: too late. My openingsentence without context is somewhat bizarre: as if the highly personal weregenerally distasteful. But at the time, I contrasted Frank’s film with theavalanche of largely unwelcome intimacies that flooded us, even then, ininterviews, talk shows, some documentaries. Voyeurism as a viewer’s right.

Now Frank made another documentary about death and mourning: Surrender.Again it goes to the bone and her pain is almost unbearable. But ‘I justwanted to ask you something’ no longer applies. This time she asked almost allthe questions and got an answer as well. Illness and death hit her best friendAnnemarie, and everything that never worked out with ‘dad’ in his life becamereality with Annemarie. Girlfriends from school and everything, everythingshared with each other, from girl to mothers with child. From adolescent toadult relationship problems. Even the secrets that partners can’t access. Ifthe basso continuo under life already seems heavier than average, then such aloss is disastrous. Mourners often find that there is initially compassion andunderstanding, but these prove to be limited. Especially if the grief is notabout a partner or child, but about a friend. So ‘good luck with it’ and thequestioning about well-being stops. Understandable perhaps but it makes youvery lonely.

We follow this process of mourning and attempts to come to terms with it,because Frank is a film maker and the filming itself is therapy to a certainextent. It is not entirely clear to me who initiated the filming of the sickgirlfriend. Annemarie found it unbearable at the worst-case scenario to haveto say goodbye to life, to her loved ones and above all to little daughterAnna, who would then hardly get to know her in her thirties. Courageously, sheapparently also calculates the worst at an early stage of the disease and hasherself filmed and interviewed. For her child. This opens the film, but if shedoesn’t know what to say, it is Marijn who urges: ‘Talk to Anna.’ Annemarie:’So I have to imagine, say, that I am dead? Okay.’ And a laugh. So there is athreat, but there is also hope. We are even there when she gets the phone callinforming her that the exact spot of the tumor (apparently already diagnosedbefore) has been found. Plus ‘treatable’ and ‘we’ll fix it for you, sweetie’.(The doctor is female.) Which brings a moment of relief, which is muffled whenit becomes apparent how severe the procedure is.

The film is not chronological: shortly after this opening we are standing withMarijn and both children at Annemarie’s grave. After which we promptly seeAnnemarie crossing the finish line in a half marathon. For she also did notlive lightly, and walking had made her life blossom. Then Marijn puts onAnnemarie’s running outfit: her inheritance. And we go with Marijn to theathletics track to meet Hesdy, her future running coach. She hates running,she says, but he has to help her finish the Berlin Marathon. This Hesdy isgreat, as a coach, but also as a wise man: she should not think that she cansolve underlying problems by walking. They are neatly waiting for her at thefinish, so to speak. But she’s going for it. They go for it.

I’m surprised: would I leave my best friend my running gear if he hatedrunning? And, as a former runner: what an insane ambition to want to go fromzero to a marathon. But she means it: throughout the film we see progress andsetbacks. The process is so arduous that it sometimes reminds me of theflagellants. With them guilt (and fear of the plague as a punishment from God)is much more important. Marijn hopes to experience what Annemarie derived fromit, relief, but on the way it often seems more like she is looking forphysical pain to supplant the other.

Besides, she sometimes feels guilty too. When she realizes richly late thatAnnemarie consoled her more often about the approaching end than the other wayaround. (We had already felt and seen that: wouldn’t Annemarie have partlyfilmed for Marijn, out of love?) And guilty, because she wonders: why notAnnemarie and I? And guilty because she is still alive but can enjoy it toolittle (which Annemarie also blamed herself for). Hesdy says somewhere thatMarijn should be a little bit nicer to herself. A cliché perhaps, but no lesstrue.

© Victor Horstink

There are touching, deeply sad scenes between the girlfriends: poignant, forexample when little Anna looks around the cemetery with papa and Annemarie.When Annemarie writes several birthday cards for Anna far in advance to stayin her life. Even looking at it hurts, but Annemarie allows it. And shesucceeds because she is so brave and honest and so clearly before illness andfilm, totally devoid of coquetry or attention seeking. Although I keep seeingand feeling Marijn (and myself) balancing on a thin rope.

In addition, you wonder about the choices that are made not about the film butin the lives of these people. Even if you have no idea how you would do ityourself. That they involve Anna in what is about to happen seems very good tome. But sometimes your heart breaks and you don’t know whether that is becauseof the terrible reality, and because of the inimitable questions and reactionsof the child, or also because of their measurements. And who are you to judgethat?

Outrageously, I sometimes wonder what all this must be like for theirpartners. Was Anna’s dad as convinced of participating in the film project ashis ailing wife and the maker? Or was he also doing it out of love, forAnnemarie? Or for Anna? Marijn continues to talk to Annemarie throughout thefilm, even after death. That’s completely right. But if she has to keeptelling her that sadness and pain remain, despite the walking project that shesticks to faithfully but that has hardly any effect, and that she is not anice mother among other things, then I think that those endless hours ofwalking from a initially untrained should also be at the expense of lovedones. (This is never said about men – but does that make it less true?) And ifat a low point Marijn suddenly knows what Annemarie would have advised her(seeking professional psychological help in addition to running help), thenthe viewer would have thought of that before. Because Marijn’s grief is,horribly enough, out of the ordinary. We see her meditating after beingadvised to do so. That seems difficult enough to me, but with a camera rightin front of your face almost mission impossible. We do not follow that pathany further.

So very heavy film, but the title Surrender God’s praise comes true. Timeand distance bring some relief. Distance figuratively and literally, measuredin endless kilometers. That justifies this project, despite cinematic andextra-cinematic reservations. In my view (many will not have thosereservations at all). I’m happy for her. ‘Not distasteful but impressive’, isthe conclusion. Despite doubts along the way.