Emmy-winning filmmaker Lana Wilson knows a thing or two about illuminating embattled professions through the movies, as her 2013 breakout “After Tiller” (which she co-directed with Martha Shane) brought a keen, careful eye to the work of a small group of abortion doctors. The documentarian brings similar consideration her follow-up feature, the immensely moving “The Departure.”
Much like “After Tiller,” Wilson’s latest film dives into the intricacies of a mostly misunderstood line of work, following Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto, a former punk musician who has dedicated his middle-aged years to helping people end their lives.
The film opens with Nemoto leading a retreat for such people — termed “death workshops” in a fascinating 2013 New Yorker article — that helps them approximate the experience and emotion of death through guided activities and discussions. Nemoto calls it “the departure,” and while it may sound a bit silly, the effect is a profound one, and one that translates into cinematic terms. The people who Nemoto attempts to help are in horrific pain, and he has made it his business to offer them solace and understanding in equal measure, making himself available to them at all times.
It’s understandable that Nemoto’s commitment would cause problems in his own life, but Wilson slowly eases her audience in to Nemoto’s own struggles. For the film’s first act, Nemoto moves through a remarkable everyday routine that is always in danger of being interrupted by a single text that reads “I want to die” (that happens) or delicately handling a sobbing man in a nondescript noodle restaurant (that too). He’s inundated with their pain and their questions — the texts, calls, voicemails, emails, in person meetings never seem to end — and while he manages to remain calm and straight-faced throughout his interactions, the price is high.
“I take on so much of their suffering,” Nemoto tells his wife at one point. “I can never show them how draining it is.” But “The Departure” does show just that, steadily chipping away at Nemoto’s work and life to reveal a man reeling from the emotional weight placed on him by his calling in life. Physically, Nemoto is also ailing, and Wilson slowly reveals her subject’s own horrific diagnosis, one only exacerbated by his profession. Nemoto, it seems, is not the only person in the film who needs to make a choice about how he wants to live — and conversely, how he might want to die — and “The Departure” eventually finds Nemoto grappling with his own mortality in increasingly intimate fashion.
Often lyrical and deeply meditative, Wilson’s film doesn’t employ talking heads to add in extra information or bulk up on anything as impersonal as stats, instead opting for a more immersive experience into Nemoto’s daily life as it progresses in unexpected ways. The priest provides a handful of voiceover interviews — including a particularly illuminating one about his own personal experiences with suicide — to add context to a film that doesn’t necessarily require it. Wilson is much more content to let Nemoto and his experience speak for itself, and the result is a rich, rewarding documentary that digs deep into major questions without being afraid of the answers.
“The Departure” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.