In his introduction to Alan Berliner’s film, “First Cousin Once Removed,” which screened as part of the “Documentary Short List” program recently at DOC NYC, the festival’s Artistic Director Thom Powers mentioned that most filmmakers he knows stop watching their films with audiences after the first few screenings, but Berliner is the exception. Berliner, whose experimental documentary films “Wide Awake,” “The Sweetest Sound,” “Nobody’s Business,” “Intimate Stranger” and “The Family Album” have been broadcast and screened at festivals all around the world, makes a point of watching his films along with an audience almost every chance he gets.
“First Cousin Once Removed,” which Eric Kohn called “equal parts psychological mystery and lyrical treatise on the passage of time,” chronicles the late Edwin Honig, a poet and professor (as well as a cousin of Berliner’s) and his life with Alzheimers. Below, Berliner explains why he relishes the opportunity to watch his films with an audience.
“First Cousin Once Removed” is currently available for viewing on HBO, HBO On Demand and HBO Go. It will also be shown on Sunday, December 22nd at 6:30 p.m. and Wednesday, December 25th at 8:30 p.m. at the Howard Gilman Theatre in the Elinor Bunim Monroe Film Center at Lincoln Center in New York City, as part of their series, “For Your Consideration: Documentary Oscar Hopefuls.” Alan Berliner will sit through both screenings.
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I first watched “First Cousin” with a public audience at its premiere at the New York Film Festival fourteen months ago. Since then, I’ve spent the past year traveling both here and abroad, watching it with audiences in ornate movie palaces, commercial multiplexes, museum auditoriums, art galleries, lecture halls, classrooms, even barns — whether full, half full, or, even on occasion, empty-ish. By now I’ve seen it in the company of audiences almost 50 times.
For me, watching my films along with the audience has always been a necessity — an intrinsic part of my understanding of what it means to be a filmmaker. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always seized the opportunity to be a fly on the wall inside the real-life laboratory for which my film was intended: a group of perfect strangers intimately gathered in a dark room to watch something I’ve just spent years of my life putting together.
Before I go any further, let me get the boredom question out of the way. I can certainly attest to the relentless grind of repeated viewings day after day after day, marching to the crazy rhythms and shifting pressures of deadlines that controlled my life throughout the process of making the film. Not always fun, for sure. Who knows how many hundreds of times I’ve actually seen my film (in all its myriad evolving forms) over the course of its editorial gestation? Exhausting yes, but not boring. After all that, now that it’s ready to be shown publicly, what could I possibly still learn by watching it that I don’t already know?
I’ve always believed that finishing a film is just “the beginning” of the end of my filmmaking process. I say “the beginning of the end,” because this new (and exciting) phase in the life of the film initiates a critically important part of my creative process — the chance to observe audience response as a way of gleaning insights both about my film and about filmmaking; things I’ll take with me when it’s time to make the next one.
“First Cousin Once Removed,” made with the support of HBO, was the most difficult project I’ve ever undertaken. It’s an intimate portrait of the poet, translator, critic, and founder of the Creative Writing Program at Brown University, Edwin Honig, who was my cousin, friend and mentor. It’s a chronicle of his journey through the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, a meditation on the profound role that memory plays in all of our lives, and a stark reminder about the fragility of being human.
As with my earlier work, I am the film’s producer, director, and editor. I’m also in the film as a character; there’s footage of me and the sound of my voice in conversation with Edwin woven throughout. If you add the layers of my personal history and family relationship with Edwin (to which you could also add “biographer”), you might easily see how all of my responsibilities and roles became inextricably intertwined and inseparable while making the film. Watching the film with an audience (while also watching the audience watch the film) allows me to finally sit back and quietly reexamine my process with the freedom and perspective of critical distance.
Audiences communicate in many ways — through laughter, through tears, even in the varied intensities of their shared silence. Over the years I’ve learned how to decode the language they’re speaking — whispers, giggles, guffaws, gasps, seat rustling, walkouts, cellphone sightings, even the volume, intensity and rhythm of their applause — and incorporate that feedback into a better understanding of the trail of decisions that went into making the film.
Sometimes it’s something relatively simple. For instance, in the midst of a conversation about death, I ask Edwin if he’s “afraid of time.” He responds by saying, “No. Time is my friend,” which is said over the image of a small, hand-painted wooden mermaid, hanging by a thin piece of string in Edwin’s apartment, slowly turning in mid-air. The delicate delivery of Edwin’s phrase moved me to hold that shot on screen for a few extra beats in silence, as the mermaid continues her serene turn across the frame. Watching it with an audience made me realize that was a good decision. I could feel their visceral grip of that silence as they watched. To be honest, it also made me wish I’d held that shot even longer.
Over time I’ve discovered that certain lines of dialogue will always elicit laughter, while I continue to remain at a loss as to why no one ever laughs at other parts of our conversation, particularly when they constantly made me smile in the editing room. (Maybe the audience is actually smiling and I just haven’t noticed.) On another level, I also get to see how each audience relates to Edwin himself — how and in what ways they respond to his wit, his spirit, the extraordinary topography of his face, and most importantly, whether they can feel the deep and abiding love and respect I hold for him throughout the film.
Given the personal nature of “First Cousin Once Removed,” watching it with different audiences around the world has helped me understand the possibilities (and the limitations) of language and translation. Each screening is also a test of my assumptions about the ways in which personal storytelling transcends its detail and specificity and (hopefully) transforms into a kind of universal truth that touches each viewer — an aspiration that is at the foundation of all the work I do.
Once the credits are over and the house lights go on, I can get up out of my seat with a better sense of how that particular audience experienced my film on that particular day. The fact that it’s also fresh in my mind energizes me to make sure that our post-screening conversation is a stimulating and meaningful extension of the film. The very act of thinking out loud in real time, being able to contextualize, synthesize and annotate my process, and ultimately, convey the essence of my mission as a filmmaker, is yet another opportunity for self-reflection and growth.
It usually takes me about a year to finally reach “the end of the end” for each film I make. After that I’m ready to begin a new project. To begin the beginning of a new project, I should say…
Watch a trailer of “First Cousin Once Removed” below: