Bearing in mind that documentary cinema represents events established as indexically real, it is comprehensible that this filmic form is permanently seen as ethically charged and deeply provocative. Death, as the ultimate void hampering our innate believe in immortality, seems to produce a cinematic contradiction.
On the one hand, we are confronted by an overrepresentation of death and dying within fictive forms, from ghost horror stories to apocalyptic narratives about the end of the world. On the other hand, the depiction of mortality in documentary films is underrepresented and controversial, being subsequently understood as ghastly, morbid and pornographic.
Considering the fear of death prevailing in our contemporary world and very recent collective traumas, it is imperative to highlight the documentaries that, throughout the history of cinema, have tried to defy and expose the disquieting and shocking effects of mortality, transforming the invisible into the visible and bringing to the surface the inexorable and abrupt happening.
Underpinned by moving images and echoing sounds of the dead, survivors, witnesses, heroes and murderers, from suicide to “natural” death, from the Holocaust to the AIDS epidemic, the following documentaries, never comparable with each other and listed chronologically, attempt to shed some light on the core question of our limited time.
1. Night and Fog (1955)
Together with “Shoah”, “Night and Fog” composes the mountaintop of Holocaust’s cinematic depiction. Through travellings along the empty concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek, old photographs and archival footage, Alain Resnais establishes a visual and emotional cartography of the appalling events that converged to enable the genocide and the consequences of the march of horrors edified by the Nazi machine.
Between the inferences allowed by the abandoned spaces – from gas chambers to rusty train rails – and the graphic evidences of the imagetic registers – from piles of burned human bodies to traces of hair and bones – Resnais creates an agonizing atmosphere capable of awakening disconcerting and unsettling feelings within the film viewer.
“We turn a blind eye to what surround us and a deaf year to humanity’s never-ending cry”, says the voice-over in the end of the film. “Night and Fog” is, ultimately, a film about the importance of remembering our past, underlining how the echoes of the atrocity still reverberate in the physical world of the living.
2. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971)
Defined by Jonathan Rosenbaum as “one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film”, “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” is a non-narrative film made by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
Filmed in 16mm in the city of Pittsburgh, the film shows highly explicit and disturbing images of dead bodies inside a morgue. By zooming-in into embalming techniques or the removal of organs during autopsies, “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” becomes one of the most visceral shocking films ever made regarding the lifeless body, outwardly deprived of any human signification and reduced to its own carnality.
Constructed mainly by partial framings abounding in blood, Brakhage’s act of filmmaking is as direct as unbiased, generating nonetheless several images able to humiliate many so-called gore films and that will, undeniably, remain in our minds.
3. Des Morts aka Of the Dead (1979)
Offering us a comparison between death rituals all over the world, from a morgue in San Francisco to a rural community in South Korea, “Of the Dead” is a disquieting object confronting death as a visual taboo and presenting us a wide-range of angles concerning mourning.
If the occidental world seems to be represented by the coldness of hospitals and funeral homes, defined by a general repression of human feelings, the oriental world’s case studies seem to depict an environment of expressive manifestation, linked to a primitive relationship with nature and the idea of collectivity.
By showing the disparities between places, “Of the Dead”, directed by Jean-Pol Ferbus, Dominique Garny, and Thierry Zéno, uncovers the coexistence of different attitudes towards death due to dissimilar social, historical and religious backgrounds.
4. Shoah (1985)
Claude Lanzmann defended that no single image could represent the massacres of the Holocaust. The proposal of “Shoah” is, therefore, built upon 556 minutes of cinematic engagement, attentively giving voice to several testimonial faces. It is through the reflecting eyes and wounded voices of those who experienced the horrifying events of the genocide that Lanzmann brings to the surface the other side of the truth.
While revisiting the abandoned concentration camps and other death sites, we listen to the intense and poignant speeches of the survivors, eyewitnesses and executors. It is mainly through close-ups of their faces that the disconcerting lived events find their way to the present, composing a documentary about the complex representation of memory, trauma, and death as the result of the unsparing force of evilness.
Dealing with more than 350 hours of raw footage, Claude Lanzmann took eleven years to conclude the film. A meaningfully violent and human cinematic opus, “Shoah” is a history class.
5. Near Death (1989)
Directed by the remarkable American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, responsible for impressive and striking filmic monuments such as “Titicut Follies” (1967) and “High School” (1968), “Near Death” follows several terminal ill patients inside Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, where time seems to entail a never-ending cycle of dying bodies.
Initially portraying the hospital as a site of the impersonal, between the aseptic rooms and the labyrinthine corridors, Wiseman’s black-and-white film progresses to an absolute immersion that deconstructs any simplistic judgments. In fact, during some instants of intimacy captured by an always-attentive camera, the film goes beyond the social and institutional interactions, grasping true humanity and forcing the film viewer to question perspectives and meanings regarding life and death.
Throughout the 358 minutes of the film, we observe the patients’ scared faces, the waiting of their relatives and the opinions of the doctors, always confronted with ethical and existential issues. One of the only documentaries about “natural” death, Wiseman’s film reminds us that even the expected flow of life is hard to accept.