Before Flying Back to the Earth

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Tag/Traum and Studio Nominum

"Before Flying Back to the Earth," a documentary portrait of children receiving treatment for leukemia, defies expectation. If potential audiences can look beyond what might be off-putting subject matter, they'll find a film that's neither grim nor maudlin. Never pushing a false sense of inspiration or hope, "Before Flying" is an eloquent look at human resilience, the wisdom of children and the charged relationship between caregiver and patient. Lithuania's official submission for the foreign-language Oscar -- a rare nonfiction entry in the category -- is continuing its successful fest run with screenings at Palm Springs. The hourlong docu would be a worthy addition to small-screen schedules around the world.

The first signal that this will not be a sentimental excursion is a moment that could be fraught with dread: the close-up of a boy getting his head shaved as he begins his treatments. His thoughtful gaze suggests the self-knowledge of an old soul (his incisive philosophical comments later in the film bear out this impression), but as the clippers buzz into action, a gleeful grin brightens his face. Amid the pills and chemo drips, there's no shortage of such lighthearted moments.

Documentarian Arunas Matelis, making his first feature-length film after directing shorts, became familiar with the oncology ward at Vilnius Pediatrics Hospital when his daughter underwent treatment there. After her recovery, he returned to the site of the most meaningful months of his life to film the children and their parents. Without intrusive explanatory narration, he immerses the viewer in the heightened experience of the fight against cancer. Through his verite approach, Matelis trusts the audience to make its own emotional connections to the material. When the children or their parents do speak directly to the camera, they have something to say. Intercut with the footage are black-and-white stills chronicling difficult times as well as kid-stuff silliness, all of it evidence of the way acute illness can intensify our appreciation of life.

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