'Patient' ('Paciente'): IDFA Review

Patient still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Tough stuff, tenderly told.

Jorge Caballero's hospital-set documentary world-premiered in competition at the Dutch festival.

Having examined the beginnings of life in his feature-length debut Birth: Maternity Journal (2011), Colombian fly-on-the-wall documentarist Jorge Caballero now contemplates mortality with his low-key but powerfully moving follow-up Patient (Paciente). Following a middle-aged woman as she cares for her cancer-stricken 23-year-old daughter, it's a quiet celebration of human resilience in the face of awful misfortune that should be compulsory viewing for all health-care professionals worldwide.

A tough "sell" on paper but with considerable potential to inspire enthusiastic word-of-mouth with proper handling, this big-screen element of a cross-platform multimedia project was among the standouts in the main competition when premiering at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Further play at non-fiction fests over the coming months is indicated.

While his approach is in many ways simple and direct, Caballero (in collaboration with "screenwriter" Carol Ann Figueroa Rueda and co-editor Ivan Guarnizo) does adopt a couple of risky creative gambits with largely successful results. Most obvious is his decision never to show the face of the title's "patient," Leidy, maintaining a discreet distance and framing his shots carefully to protect her privacy. Instead we mainly see Leidy's mother Nubia, who seems to spend most of her waking hours at Leidy's hospital bedside as her daughter receives treatment for a neuroectodermal tumor.

When she isn't in Leidy's room, Nubia limpingly navigates the institution's corridors as she deals with various levels of bureaucracy, interacting with sympathetic but overstretched personnel to ensure Leidy is getting the appropriate care and medication. She is seldom very far from a TV set, all of them playing the same program: Colombia's Top Model. Audio extracts from the breezily banal show have clearly been selected by Caballero for maximum ironic counterpoint: Contestant Dayane is hailed as "an example of overcoming" as Leidy engages in a daily struggle for existence.

As Leidy's condition worsens in the film's second half, Nubia's saintly fortitude under the most trying of circumstances is harrowing to endure but admirable to observe. It helps that Caballero thankfully eschews the superfluous scoring which has somehow become de rigueur for documentary filmmakers in recent years, instead trusting the essential strength of his material and using Alejandro Gallon's music only over the closing credits.

Resolutely unsentimental and briskly economic as a salutary and illuminating glimpse into an extreme situation, Patient is a textbook example of how horrendously difficult and sensitive material can and should be handled.  

Production company: Gusano Films
Director: Jorge Caballero
Screenwriter: Carol Ann Figueroa Rueda
Producers: Jorge Caballero, Rosa Ramos
Cinematographer: Lukas Jaramillo
Editors: Jorge Caballero, Ivan Guarnizo
Composer: Alejandro Gallon
Sales: Rise and Shine, Berlin
Not rated, 73 minutes