‘Sometimes the highly personal is not distasteful but impressive’, I wrote in 2008 in response to Marijn Frank’s NFTA graduation film: Daddy’s gone…and I wanted to ask you some questions. Due to the content and form of that film about a war-damaged father, whose silence passed on trauma, the title alone strikes me again. Partly because, apart from trauma, death leaves all unasked questions forever unanswered. Then bitter realization: too late. My opening sentence without context is somewhat bizarre: as if the highly personal were generally distasteful. But at the time, I contrasted Frank’s film with the avalanche of largely unwelcome intimacies that flooded us, even then, in interviews, 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 just wanted to ask you something’ no longer applies. This time she asked almost all the questions and got an answer as well. Illness and death hit her best friend Annemarie, and everything that never worked out with ‘dad’ in his life became reality with Annemarie. Girlfriends from school and everything, everything shared with each other, from girl to mothers with child. From adolescent to adult relationship problems. Even the secrets that partners can’t access. If the basso continuo under life already seems heavier than average, then such a loss is disastrous. Mourners often find that there is initially compassion and understanding, but these prove to be limited. Especially if the grief is not about a partner or child, but about a friend. So ‘good luck with it’ and the questioning about well-being stops. Understandable perhaps but it makes you very 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 certain extent. It is not entirely clear to me who initiated the filming of the sick girlfriend. Annemarie found it unbearable at the worst-case scenario to have to say goodbye to life, to her loved ones and above all to little daughter Anna, who would then hardly get to know her in her thirties. Courageously, she apparently also calculates the worst at an early stage of the disease and has herself filmed and interviewed. For her child. This opens the film, but if she doesn’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 a threat, but there is also hope. We are even there when she gets the phone call informing her that the exact spot of the tumor (apparently already diagnosed before) 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 when it becomes apparent how severe the procedure is.
The film is not chronological: shortly after this opening we are standing with Marijn and both children at Annemarie’s grave. After which we promptly see Annemarie crossing the finish line in a half marathon. For she also did not live lightly, and walking had made her life blossom. Then Marijn puts on Annemarie’s running outfit: her inheritance. And we go with Marijn to the athletics 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 is great, as a coach, but also as a wise man: she should not think that she can solve underlying problems by walking. They are neatly waiting for her at the finish, 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 hated running? And, as a former runner: what an insane ambition to want to go from zero to a marathon. But she means it: throughout the film we see progress and setbacks. The process is so arduous that it sometimes reminds me of the flagellants. With them guilt (and fear of the plague as a punishment from God) is much more important. Marijn hopes to experience what Annemarie derived from it, relief, but on the way it often seems more like she is looking for physical pain to supplant the other.
Besides, she sometimes feels guilty too. When she realizes richly late that Annemarie consoled her more often about the approaching end than the other way around. (We had already felt and seen that: wouldn’t Annemarie have partly filmed for Marijn, out of love?) And guilty, because she wonders: why not Annemarie and I? And guilty because she is still alive but can enjoy it too little (which Annemarie also blamed herself for). Hesdy says somewhere that Marijn should be a little bit nicer to herself. A cliché perhaps, but no less true.
There are touching, deeply sad scenes between the girlfriends: poignant, for example when little Anna looks around the cemetery with papa and Annemarie. When Annemarie writes several birthday cards for Anna far in advance to stay in her life. Even looking at it hurts, but Annemarie allows it. And she succeeds because she is so brave and honest and so clearly before illness and film, totally devoid of coquetry or attention seeking. Although I keep seeing and feeling Marijn (and myself) balancing on a thin rope.
In addition, you wonder about the choices that are made not about the film but in the lives of these people. Even if you have no idea how you would do it yourself. That they involve Anna in what is about to happen seems very good to me. But sometimes your heart breaks and you don’t know whether that is because of the terrible reality, and because of the inimitable questions and reactions of the child, or also because of their measurements. And who are you to judge that?
Outrageously, I sometimes wonder what all this must be like for their partners. Was Anna’s dad as convinced of participating in the film project as his ailing wife and the maker? Or was he also doing it out of love, for Annemarie? Or for Anna? Marijn continues to talk to Annemarie throughout the film, even after death. That’s completely right. But if she has to keep telling her that sadness and pain remain, despite the walking project that she sticks to faithfully but that has hardly any effect, and that she is not a nice mother among other things, then I think that those endless hours of walking from a initially untrained should also be at the expense of loved ones. (This is never said about men – but does that make it less true?) And if at a low point Marijn suddenly knows what Annemarie would have advised her (seeking professional psychological help in addition to running help), then the viewer would have thought of that before. Because Marijn’s grief is, horribly enough, out of the ordinary. We see her meditating after being advised to do so. That seems difficult enough to me, but with a camera right in front of your face almost mission impossible. We do not follow that path any further.
So very heavy film, but the title Surrender God’s praise comes true. Time and distance bring some relief. Distance figuratively and literally, measured in endless kilometers. That justifies this project, despite cinematic and extra-cinematic reservations. In my view (many will not have those reservations at all). I’m happy for her. ‘Not distasteful but impressive’, is the conclusion. Despite doubts along the way.
Marin Frank, Surrender, NTR 2Doc, Monday 17 October, NPO 2, 8.25 pm