'End of Life': Film Review | Cinema du Reel 2018

A meditative chronicle of deaths foretold.

In this experimental documentary, directors John Bruce and Pawel Wojtasik film several people suffering from terminal conditions while baring themselves to the camera.

An unflinching look at people during the final years, or days, of their existence, End of Life captures how our last moments can be filled with wonder, terror, and even bursts of creativity and humor, focusing on several characters who do not wish to go gentle into that good night.

Directed by John Bruce and Pawel Wojtasik, who shot footage for over four years and trained as doulas in order to get as close to their subjects as possible, the experimental documentary is made up of different sequences — many of them shot in uninterrupted takes — where the camera remains fixated on five individuals for whom death looms on the horizon.

A difficult sit at times, the film nonetheless leaves you with the impression that dying is yet another facet of life, with its ups and downs, its moments of euphoria and boredom — that it’s perhaps something less to fear than to experience as fully as possible. Picked up by Grasshopper for U.S. release, Life should continue its festival run after stops at Doclisboa, Montreal, Thessaloniki and the Cinema du Reel in Paris, with possibilities for play in museums and other non-theatrical venues.

Tackling similar territory to Frederick Wiseman’s memorable six-hour study from 1989, Near Death, which was set in an intensive care unit in Boston, End of Life is less concerned with facts and practicalities — we never learn the names of those who are dying, nor what maladies they suffer from — then with focusing on the faces, bodies and living spaces of its subjects. (End credits reveal the identities of those filmed, who include the spiritual guru Ram Dass and the artist Matt Freedman.)

During its toughest scenes, such as when we linger on a woman who looks to be well into her 80s or 90s and seems to be fading fast, Life asks the viewer to witness how humans can rapidly deteriorate. It’s rather unsettling to see, although the directors have a very Zen-like way of depicting such moments, appearing at times in the shot to provide comfort to those suffering. They are bearing witness to the ultimate event in our lives, yet doing so in a way that renders it less terrifying than one would imagine.

Other sequences are more lighthearted, including one-man performance pieces by Freedman where he talks, among other things, about his intensive cancer treatment, drawing cartoons while engaging in lengthy Spalding Gray-style monologues. One scene, where the camera turns constantly on a 360-degree axis, dips into fictional territory as Freedman narrates an allegorical tale that’s performed by the staff of his art studio.

Viewers looking for a sense of closure, or some grand statement about the meaning of existence, will not find that here. Instead, Bruce and Wojtasik seem concerned with how the cinema can encapsulate such a pivotal, intimate event, doing so with a keen sense of beauty — the film’s backlit photography can be striking in places — and ambiguity. Their approach is more meditative than it is reassuring or unnerving, floating in a gray area where people’s bodies and minds are slowly letting go, but still keeping death at bay. In that sense, End of Life feels very much alive.

Venue: Cinema du Reel (IR/Reel)
Production companies: Train-Tracks Moving Pictures, HAOS Films
Directors, producers, cinematographers: John Bruce, Pawel Wojtasik
Co-producers: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Ian Hassett
Directors of photography: John Bruce, Pawel Wojtasik
Editor: Ian Hassett

91 minutes