According to our wise friend, Wikipedia, “In music, the conclusion is the ending of a composition, taking the form of a coda or outro. Pieces using sonata form typically use the recapitulation to conclude a piece, providing closure through the repetition of thematic material, [creating] altogether unexpected digressions just as a work is drawing to its close, followed by a return to a consequently more emphatic confirmation of the structural relations implied in the body of the work.” (italics mine)
In Russian, the word outro means "morning" or "morrow."
Julia Panasenko’s film, Outro, which just won the Grand Prix at the Flahertiana documentary festival in Perm, Russia, last week is a fast and furious piece, clocking in at just 43 minutes. For most of the first half of this brief three quarters of an hour, I was completely disoriented. (A sensation I experience most of the time, so I don’t panic about it anymore.) And then once I was somewhat orientated to what was happening, the film became a revelation in how breaking every formal "rule" of documentary can take one on a journey of intense discovery, viscerally tapping into extremely deep emotional territory. So much so, in fact, I found myself shutting down completely while watching it since I didn’t want my molecules to fly apart in front of everyone else in the cinema since that would be messy and embarrassing. I can say that this film has not left my frontal lobe since viewing it.
I've spent the last decade or so of my life pondering the ins and outs of documentary filmmaking in all of its formal aspects—the dramaturgical alchemy of successful nonfiction storytelling; the technical aspects of how you cinematically illustrate the lives of your subjects with vision and sound; how to tap into the most appropriate tempo and pace of your film’s various aspects to build to a satisfying whole; the rhythms of the very complex and intimate dance in which the maker engages with his or her protagonists. It’s bloody hard work and, when you’re doing it as a solo act, it's also a small miracle of an achievement. (The filmmaker, pictured above.)
And then I see something like Panasenko’s film and realize that the spectrum of creativity in nonfiction storytelling keeps expanding to new depths, and all the parsing of this, that and the other amounts to so much nonsense, really. Panasenko produced, directed, and shot the film on a small digital camera. The film is, for the most part, pretty raw—not retouched or color corrected, with distorted or bad sound quality in several places, since she didn’t have the resources to do any extensive post-production work. Panasenko also expertly and intuitively edited the piece, creating a gorgeous and moving homage to a dying friend. You can feel the filmmaker groping for purchase with her camera, frightened, intimidated, tentative—and then she is completely there, running right up to the precipice with her protagonist. And then, letting go.
“Judging from my looks, I think I have like three weeks left.” Time is running out for Svetlana Donskova (pictured below), a vibrant woman in her late thirties whose life force is palpable throughout the film, even though it is quickly dissipating, the last grains of sand in the hourglass accelerating in an unstoppable flow towards the void most of us fear, the last moments of our lives.
Some of us have allowed certain inalienable beliefs to embed themselves in our psyches and these beliefs provide succor and comfort about what awaits us on the other side. Others of us question, wonder and ponder endlessly and / or stop our minds from “going there” at all. Others of us are quite sure there is just nothingness—not only our corporeal selves dissolve, but our spirits and consciousnesses flicker out, as well, and only live on in the memories and hearts of those we leave behind, along with some photographs, some recordings, and other documented ephemera that make up a life.
We experience other, smaller deaths during the course of our lifetimes--heartbreak, the death of a loved one, the loss of something that defines us, such as a job, an identity, a bank account. Through illness or accident, we sometimes suffer the loss of a limb or an organ or a part of our mind. And we are often defined (against our will) in terms of what others think of us, how they relate to us, how they judge us and peg us as "that type of person." It's all somewhat of a trap unless you choose to, somehow, break free of any and all constraints and use most of your energy to craft a personality and presence that is uncompromising.
This last bit, as Panasenko portrays her, describes Donskova. The tug-of-war in which she engages as she’s dying—with her mother, in particular—is a testament to this uncompromising force. In a flurry of dialogues, monologues, phone conversations, she seems to be saying, This was my life the way I saw fit to live it, despite all the lack, all the doubts, all the un-leveraged benefits of being young and intelligent, creative and beautiful. And this is my death, and I will experience it also as I see fit, no compromises.
The mother has done damage—purposefully / unwittingly, innocently / cruelly, doesn’t matter—love is selfish, love is cruel, love is narcissistic. Donskova makes it clear that her mother will have the rest of her life to deal with the results of the rift between them since she has that privilege still, more life to live. Donskova is moving on relentlessly and bravely towards the end of hers because she has no choice in the matter. The film contains so many beautifully composed moments of overwhelming emotion unexpressed from Donskova herself, her friends, her father, and, finally, her mother, as well, so many shouts and cries of anger and grief are suppressed, that everyone is imbued with the kind of grace and dignity Sveta’s “good death” demands.
After listening to a lovely, delicate, sweet song composed especially for her by her friend and neighbor, Dima, she says pensively, “I still can’t figure out what I am. Am I bad or good? . . . At least now I know what I am in musical terms.” As her father’s big, rough hands caress the body of his dying daughter, he says to her, “Soon you’ll get rid of your physical self. At first you’ll fly above us. And we’ll remember you very, very long.” Her friend, Panasenko, has also left an imprint of Sveta’s spirit in cinematic terms, so she can stay with us all a bit longer.