Alan Berliner keeps the camera trained on his relative (Edwin Honig) in this portrait of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease that shows the various stages of someone losing not just more and more of their memory, but more and more of themselves. It’s an uncomfortable watch at times, and viewers may wonder just why Alan decides to persist with his documenting of something so saddening, but it also still manages to hold up as a testament to the character, the poetic soul, of the man being given all the attention of the camera. While it looks at memory being lost it also makes people think of memories being made and of the strange nature of things – the way in which we make our memories before they in turn often contribute to making us who we are.
Edwin Honig was quite an extraordinary man. He was a renowned poet and translator, looked upon with immense respect by those who wanted to learn from him and gain his acceptance. He was never all that complimentary to those around him, however, with the exception of his cousin, Alan. Yet this closeness only comes into play during the clips that show Edwin before his memory REALLY starts to fail him. Once some of the main foundations are removed, Alan finds himself in a recurring pattern of explaining who he is and what he’s doing and who Edwin is.
I think that, overall, this has been done for a good reason, but it feels almost sadistic on occasion. When Alan prompts Edwin to talk more about his memories, with the use of photos or drip-fed information, it quickly becomes clear whenever Edwin is either unable to remember everything being asked of him or unwilling to do so. Using Edwin as a mirror, as he himself puts it, is a good idea and showing the progress of Alzheimer’s disease is sobering, especially when considering the essence of the man trapped in his own black hole of amnesia. Holding a mirror up for Edwin to keep having to look at, however, is quite a distressing experience for both the viewer and (more so) the subject.
The strangest thing about First Cousin Once Removed is that it’s hard to know exactly how the end result should be received. If it’s a testament to the man Edwin was, and still is (despite the disease), then it certainly makes things difficult as the Alzheimer’s keeps doing all it can do to rob the man of his dignity and strength. If it’s a reminder to viewers of how horrible the disease is . . . . . . . well, I’m sad to say that I think many people are already aware of the experience (unlike the experience documented in I Am Breathing, also showing this year).
It has good intentions, it has poignancy and it has a brutal honesty to it that makes the whole thing commendable. Despite my reservations, I have to admit that I found it well worth viewing. A mixture of poetry and pain that was maybe only possible with Edwin at the centre of events. Ultimately, that may have been what Alan saw in his cousin when he decided to make this documentary. Whether or not you agree is something to decide after seeing it for yourself.
DIRECTOR: ALAN BERLINER
STARS: EDWIN HONIG, ALAN BERLINER
RUNTIME: 78 MINS APPROX