Interview with Alan Berliner

Read the interview with Alan Berliner, director of First Cousin Once Removed (2012), Verzio 10 opening film.

Oksana Sarkisova: Your friendship with Edwin Honig spanned many years. When have you started contemplating the idea of recording parts of your conversations for the film?

Alan Berliner: I had been shooting little bits of Edwin over the years with my 16mm movie camera.  I also recorded an interview I did with Edwin in 1989 titled, “Cousin to Cousin,” that was published in an anthology of writings about him, called, A Glass of Green Tea with Edwin Honig.”  I was fascinated by Edwin on many levels, and I certainly imagined that there might come a day when I might think about making a film about him (an idea he’d gently hint at from time to time).  But it wasn’t until we were talking about memory during one of my visits, and he told me that something was increasingly wrong with his, that I realized that we should continue our conversation, and I asked him if I could bring a camera on my next visit.  A few months later I went back to see him and that was the beginning of the project.  For almost five years I kept visiting him and recording our conversations.  As the years passed, I realized that something extraordinary was happening.  Edwin was losing his memory, but not his sense of humor, not his identity as a poet, and certainly not his astute ability to observe the world around him and translate it into metaphor and insight.  As much our ongoing conversations record the steady decline of his body and his mind, they also document the strength and stamina of his spirit, his innate charm and his ever-playful way with words.

OS: Why was it important for you to make this film?

AB: Edwin and I were very close.  Making the film was a way of honoring him as my friend, as my cousin, and also as a poet – as someone who dedicated his life to the power of the poem, and to the transcendent role of art in our society.  Edwin was someone who believed in exploring and exposing the deep and sometimes dark spaces of the human condition. While the film approaches Edwin’s condition with compassion and humor, I’d like to think it also portrays Edwin’s life with the same raw honesty that resonates in his poetry, written amidst a lifetime steeped in tragedy, love, loss, irony and literary daring.  I’m sure he would see this project as an opportunity to make one last grand poetic gesture…

Having said that, it’s also important to put this film in the context of my body of work that now spans several decades.  I have dedicated my life to making films that try and get inside of what it means to be human, what it means to live and grow inside the institution known as “the family” – for better and/or for worse, the most intense and powerful set of relationships most of us will ever have.  I thought a film about Edwin could be an extraordinary window into the way that memory functions as the glue of life; the way it allows us to navigate so fluidly between past, present, and future, which is the mysterious key to the formation of, (and integration of) personal identity, personality and character.  In many ways I think all of the films I’ve made up until now had prepared me for this journey I took with Edwin. 

OS: What was the most moving moment for you while making it?

AB: One of the most moving moments for me was the evening when I ask Edwin if he remembered playing musical instruments with my son Eli that morning – I even show him a green maraca they’d used – and he responds, “I have no night of what I knew in the morning.”  Even in the throes of his Alzheimer’s disease, he was still a poet, still coming up with metaphors that helped explain his experience in poetic terms.  In many ways he kept expressing fleeting moments of poetic insight, and his intermittent moments of self-awareness and lucidity allow us inside his ongoing struggle to make sense of his new relationships to time, family and personal identity.  It’s like he’s sending back reports from the edge of the abyss…

OS: The film was screened and appreciated worldwide. And yet it made some object to the degree of intimacy with which you tell the story. Have you at any point hesitated about including or excluding certain episodes in the film?

AB: Let me first say that this film was a labor of love.  Edwin was my cousin, he was my friend, he was my mentor, and we were also the only two artists on my mother’s side of the family.  Despite the fact that we were 36 years apart in age (or maybe because of it), we had a very special relationship.  First Cousin Once Removed is not a film I could (or would) have made about anyone else in my family -- or anyone else in the world for that matter.  It’s the culmination of decades of deep friendship, mutual trust, family kinship, artistic kinship, countless long walks, telephone conversations, debates and discussions with Edwin, often centered on his insistence that art should always get to the heart of the matter – to the very bottom of things – an approach he valued in his life, applied to his work, and something I kept in mind throughout the making of the film.  This is not a film you can make halfway.  It’s all or nothing.  Memory is, after all, at the very core of our lives; it is the vehicle of consciousness.

Finally, Edwin knew that the life of poet – the good and the bad together, all of it – is intrinsic to truly understanding and appreciating the work that’s made.  He himself wrote deeply and often about what he called his three griefs: the death of his younger brother Stanley, the death of his first wife, Charlotte after 23 years of marriage, and then his divorce from his second wife Margot and his subsequent estrangement from his two sons.

OS: You have made several films exploring the roots and stories of your family. What are – for you – the biggest challenges of working with such seemingly accessible material?

AB: I have spent most of my career making films that attempt to transcend their detail and specificity by illuminating the universal, the enduring, hopefully even the mythic qualities that bind us together as human beings. I am committed to making films that find the poignancies, ironies, metaphors – and humor – inside of what it means to be human.

For several decades now, I’ve used my own life, and the lives of those I know and love - my family - as an elaborate laboratory in which to explore the rich intersections and ironies of family, family history, personal memory, the construction of identity, the horizon of mortality, and the unspoken power of family legacy.  There are both risks and rewards to this kind of life-long project.  I prefer to think about the rewards…

In the end, in order for my films to work, the screen must somehow function as both a window and a mirror.  First, the audience should see my film as a window to the personal stories and experiences of other people, places, and circumstances outside of their own particular worlds.  Then, at the same time, my film must also somehow become a mirror for each viewer -- a surface upon which they might also see something of themselves; an opportunity to reflect upon their own stories, their own family dynamics, their own names, their own sleep, their own memory, or whatever else it is that my film is exploring at that particular moment in time.

OS: You use of a lot of visual metaphors in your film, are you looking for this additional footage in the process of editing or envision them along with or prior to the shooting?

AB: I am constantly searching for ideas and strategies that will allow archival footage to enter into the storytelling.  I have a large archive of archival imagery at my studio (and access to other archives if needed), and part of the fun of filmmaking for me is finding uniquely cinematic ways of saying and expressing things; of creating visual and aural metaphors for many of the themes in my films.  It’s hard to describe, but in it’s simplest form, I try and let the film come to me, rather than imposing myself into (or onto) the film.

This is a process that’s been part of my work now for decades.  Because I am both the director and editor (and sometimes behind one of the cameras) of my films, there is always a perpetual back and forth, a give and take, a cross-fertilization between these different roles that profoundly impacts what I do.  I pride myself on being able to bring an editor’s perspective to the shooting moment, and a strong director’s impulse into the editing room. 

OS: Has your perception of the film changed after its completion and release?

AB: I was with Edwin the day he agreed to donate his brain to science, for Alzheimer’s research.  For a variety of reasons, that never happened, which I’ve always thought was a bit sad.  But after completing my film, I started to see it (and understand it) as a way of preserving Edwin’s amazing mind, which is another kind of research that’s equally as important.  I hope First Cousin Once Removed allows us to look at Alzheimer’s disease, the mysterious interconnections between remembering and forgetting, and in many ways life itself, in ways we never have before.

OS: What was the most unexpected reaction to your film?

AB: I was profoundly honored to win the Documentary Grand Prize at IDFA last year; that was quite unexpected.

Now that the film has been broadcast on HBO in the United States, I’ve been incredibly surprised and gratified by the responses of neurologists and geriatric psychiatrists who’ve seen the film.  I’ve received several responses from scientists and doctors who know Alzheimer’s from the inside out, and who have also spent a great deal of time and energy working with patients (and their families), who are experiencing the life-altering metamorphosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

One doctor recently wrote, “your film captures the essential human behind this terrible disease – the person with a history (both noble and flawed), with conflicts and losses and triumphs – and shows both the progression and the discontinuities in this disease that are essential to capturing a complete picture. You also illustrate wonderfully the dialectic that loved ones face - between loss of meaning (via loss of the afflicted person) and abandonment of hope, and yet the simple joys and profundities of daily life.” Unexpected responses like this from the medical community move me very much, and remind me that poets and scientists can learn a great deal from one another.