QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM THE SHEFFIELD DOC FEST
Pomm is a young and charismatic carer somewhere in Thailand. She works in a home inhabited by 14 Westerners with advanced Alzheimer’s. She has to provide her patients with full-on care, including menial tasks, hygiene, welfare and – perhaps most significantly – a lot of TLC. She talks, she sings, she hugs and she laughs with the extremely vulnerable and frail human beings in their twilight years. They hardly respond, and yet she carries on undaunted.
The fifth documentary by 40-year-old Belgian documentarist Kristof Bilsen is a tribute to kindness and solidarity, and also a painful register of the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s on the patients and their families. To boot, this doc also reflects on the economic divide between Europe and Asia. That’s quite a lot to pack in just 80 minutes, and the director does it very aptly.
Pomm is the epitome of selflessness and altruism. She tends to her patients with utmost passion and unflinching determination. Her employers, however fail to recognise her commitment. They hardly allow her time off to see her children and very own mother, who live a six-hour drive away. She feels guilty for not spending time and tending to her very own kin. Her father took his own life in very tragic circumstances years earlier. She bemoans her economic status, noting that Europeans are extremely privileged. Pomm is oppressed by a subtle version of 21st century imperialism.
Maya (pictured at the top) is just 57 years of age. She looks young and healthy and lives with her three beautiful daughters and doting husband in the idyllic Swiss countryside. But she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s. She stands catatonic with a black stare on her face most of the time. Her communication skills barely exceed the monosyllabic “yes” and “no”. She doesn’t recognise her family. She has returned to very early babyhood. So her family makes the difficult and controversial decision to send her off to Thailand.
The director captures some intimate and also painful moments without being exploitative. This is an entirely observational documentary without a narrator. Pomm does most of the talk, sharing her feelings as a carer, mother and daughter. In what’s perhaps the movie’s most harrowing sequence, Maya’s husband tried to talk with his wife – who’s now in Thailand – through Skype, but she’s unable to understand that there’s a human being attempting to communicate with her though the computer monitor and speakers (despite Pomm’s and her boss’s repeated attempts to engage Maya with her spouse). Their helplessness is agonising to watch.
At the very end of the film we learn of a very tragic, unexpected and ironic passing away, which lends an entirely new dimension to Pomm’s predicament.
MOTHER just saw its world premiere at the Sheffield Doc Fest, which is taking place right now. A little trinket of documentary-making addressing mental health. Watch it if you can.