'Spirit / Will / Loss': Palm Springs Review

Courtesy of Palm Springs International Film Festival
A visual if occasionally heavy-handed treat about some very abstract notions and ideas

Patryk and Erinnisse Rebisz's feature documentary debut looks at artists who tried to use their art to overcome their own disabilities.

Three artists struggle to come to terms with their own physical disabilities in the documentary feature Spirit / Will / Loss from Polish-born cinematographer Patryk Rebisz and his wife, New Yorker Erinnisse Rebisz, an editor by trade, with both making their directorial debut on the feature they also shot and cut, respectively. The strength of their collaborative feature lies not in the selected talking heads — a blind photographer, a musician with a constant ring in his ears, and the artist and boxer whose story would become the basis for Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby — but in the way the duo manage to translate their subjects' personal dramas and emotions into potent visuals. After a premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, this should travel to regional and documentary festivals, with an outside chance of a boutique distributor pickup.

Irish musician Graham Sharpe just wanted to be onstage and play his guitar, but advancing tinnitus put a constant ring and buzz in his ears and ended that dream. Alice Wingwall was a sculptress and visual artist whose eyesight quickly started to disappear, while Katie Dallam, a sculptor and painter, suffered severe brain damage after a boxing match.

As Wingwall’s eyesight became less and less clear — she started to wear a lot of red because that’s the last color to disappear, she touchingly explains — she turned to photography as her art of choice. “All you have to do is press the shutter,” she says laconically, though much of her work, curated with the help of people who can see, is indeed fascinating. She uses her “memory image bank” now to get an idea of what she is shooting, and a lot of her work is composed of several images grouped together.

Wingwall has some very perceptive things to say about the art of photography, including the notion that much of the enjoyment of photography comes from the possibility it offers to relive a certain moment, which for someone who’s gone blind takes on an even more poignant dimension since she has to reach back into her memory not to when she took the photograph but to even earlier times, when she could still see.

After being beaten to a pulp, Dallam had to learn everything again from scratch, including walking, eating and speaking (she suggests that Eastwood’s very liberally adapted Oscar-winning feature helped her understand what had actually happened to her). This of course influenced her increasingly dark paintings, which helped her process what had happened to her. However, the pre- and post-accident distinction isn’t entirely clear-cut, as suggested by a scene in which Dallam goes through piles of her artwork with her sister and they seem surprised by the dating of some of the works.

Both Dallam and Wingwall get to have their say and are quite perceptive about their journeys as artists and how their work and lives have influenced one another. But thankfully the Rebiszes don’t settle for simple interviews and have carefully edited in a lot of suggestive images and worked on an immersive soundscape that help suggest in audiovisual terms what the ideas, pain, struggles and thought processes of the artists must have been like. Seeing Wingwall with images projected on her face and on the wall behind her or having Dallam lie down in a field of dead sunflowers are images that are much more potent and poetic than any type of oral description.

However, this doesn’t mean that the newbie directors get everything right. Some of the images are more than a bit heavy-handed, such as when Dallam talks about when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the directors insert a shot of a blood-like liquid splattering onto the floor. The entire section about Sharpe also doesn’t really compare with the other two, as his inability to play music professionally anymore didn’t lead him to (perhaps another type of) art to both console him and suggest a way forward. Instead, he's saved by his organizational skills, becoming one of the organizers of a successful local music festival.

Generally, the directors find suggestive ways to stage both their subjects and what they are discussing, with expressive lighting, unusual camera angles and impressive locations all contributing to making the film an unusual sensorial experience. One of the most impressive sequences of the film involves Sharpe as he’s seated on a chair, playing his guitar. The musician’s sitting in a yellow wheat field that’s being invaded by green weeds in the foreground and with a sky full of dark rain clouds, a potent visual reminder of the invasive noise and bad tidings we hear on soundtrack as he plays and which suggest what he’s hearing in his own ears.

Production company: Tupelo Productions
Cast: Katie Dallam, Graham Sharpe, Alice Wingwall
Directors: Patryk Rebisz, Erinnisse Rebisz
Producers: Patryk Rebisz, Erinnisse Rebisz, Zeberiah Newman
Director of photography: Patryk Rebisz
Editor: Erinnisse Rebisz

No rating, 74 minutes