In Daniel Stamm’s “A Necessary Death,” we see a young film student known for taking wild risks as a filmmaker wants to make a documentary about someone who plans to commit suicide. His friends think it’s a crazy idea, and while some of them agree to help, his roommate decides to document the making of the documentary. They post an ad online, interview some suicidal candidates, and finally settle on a young man with a terminal brain tumor who wants to kill himself before he has to suffer. The nature of the filmmaking process, and a series of manipulations, romances, and discoveries, lead the film in a taut and tragic trajectory.
At the SXSW premiere, after the screening, the audience gasped at the sight of the supposedly dead actors. The director of the film asked for a show of hands as to how many people thought it was a documentary through to the end, and fully half the crowd raised their hands. But it’s not a documentary. It’s a brilliantly executed work of fiction.
At the Q & A, one woman walked out 2/3rds of the way through, but came back at the end to discuss the film. She had believed it was a documentary, and was too disturbed to watch, but raised the question about filmmaking and audience complicity in this “death.” Even if it turns out to be a narrative, what does it say about our society if we want to watch something like this?
My first reaction to that is, how is it different from watching a film about a war, or about someone dying of a disease? Presumably, death in those circumstances is completely inevitable and out of the filmmakers’ control. In the rare circumstances when a filmmaker has a chance to save a life, they probably usually do put down the camera. But it’s never just that simple. For example, what if a filmmaker in a war knows that someone is injured, but continues to film something else rather than helping, because to help would mean to stop filming?
I believe that most of the filmmakers whose films play at Rooftop and SXSW and similar festivals truly do want to help their subjects and the causes they stand for. They want to tell the story so that audience members can engage with the issue. If they stop filming, the one person may be sacrificed, but the larger issue of the film will carry on, eventually (so the hope goes) saving many people.
That was my initial reaction–an idealistic and utilitarian one. But frankly it didn’t sit right with me. It felt morally thin. Talking to my extremely kind-hearted girlfriend Stephanie Skaff and to filmmaker/Docs That Inspire-writer Joel Heller about the topic, they expressed what I think is the key to the issue: a filmmaker who genuinely cares about his subjects wouldn’t allow themselves to simply watch, and not interfere in order to save a life or help an individual. Of course, in every situation, the filmmaker has to make careful distinctions and choices, but I think one can probably draw a close link between the lasting humanity of a given film and the ability of that filmmaker to make the “right” choice as to when to interfere and when to keep rolling.
That still leaves the complicated issue of suicide, and this non-documentary “A Necessary Death.” Personally, I think if I was working on a documentary about a potential suicide, the goal of the film would be to work through the issue of suicide and to engage audience members in a dialogue which could eventually help people. So I would try to help the person work through their issues, see if there was a solution before death, assist them in making the best choice for themselves. And if suicide were still the choice, I’d be willing to roll the camera.
“A Necessary Death” I think succeeds in raising and addressing the issues of the role of the documentarian, the viewer, and all witnesses and friends. In the film, the tragedy is not the suicide, but the fact that clearly the friends and documentarian have not done enough to engage and help, letting a man kill himself when he was not in fact at peace with that choice.
At least that’s my take on this very thought-provoking film. If you get a chance, check it out so we can talk more.