I’m a natural comedian who employs nearly every style of comedy. But I don’t use satire anymore. Why? Because people seriously thought I was just speaking awful things. And I might be alone in this – a friend told me that his brother says wildly inappropriate things to girls, who always laugh since they think he’s joking (which, sigh, he isn’t). I wasn’t so lucky with satire, so I stopped.
Which leads us to A Necessary Death, an excellent fake-documentary that looks and feels like a real premise: a film student decides that his thesis film should follow the last days of a suicidal person, right up to the actual death.
The style of AND sells its concept so well, many audiences members were unaware that it was a film, horrified and disgusted by what they saw. It’s shot in a natural, rough style, which makes it work as phony found-film footage – and as a doc. It’s its own worst enemy.
In many ways, the filmmakers chose a topic that’s a little too personal and controversial. Many people know someone who committed suicide, or someone who lost a close relative to self-death. It can be very hard to see 20-somethings work to protect their professional standing in the midst of awful events…
The picture has a hard time with the viewer because Death often feels real, while being incredibly self-aware and modern. From the beginning, this film establishes itself as a doc. The camera-work, naturalistic dialogue, and thematic focus really do add much realism. And it didn’t help that every actor goes by their real names…
So maybe you have to have your thinking-cap on to understand that it’s all just fiction. There are plenty of signs that this movie isn’t supposed to be real: the little asides and beats between people, the soap-opera character developments…
Gilbert is a film student. He comes up with a thesis project, signs on two male friends as crewmen, then adds his ex-girlfriend, Valerie, as a fourth. They are all troubled by the idea behind the film – we see them raise their concerns – so Gilbert interviews a lawyer on the topic.
I can tell you, from personal experience: the legal advice is a bit iffy. Yet the general idea is true – you’re not legally responsible for stopping a stranger from committing suicide. You can film them as they make their final choice, without any effort to stop them.
AND goes on, following filmmakers who simultaneously want their project to succeed, yet squirm at the practical and moral problems here. They interview a dozen people: two teens are listened to intently before the authorities are called; several adults from all walks of life talk about how hopeless they feel. Later, the crew callously picks one, claiming that the others don’t have ” the will” to really do it. Finally, they pick a terminally-ill British man, Matt. How hard is it to choose the one who will die?
This cast, like the audience, has to figure out if they’re dealing with the real thing. Matt’s medical records are checked, but it never stops anyone from doubting. Even the cameraman notes that Matt plans out his death but never mentions family. At first, you can’t tell if the subject is depressed and happy for the new experience, or if he just wants attention; Matt seems quite chipper, for a dead man walking.
Throughout, the crew is both aware of and oblivious to what they’re doing. Valerie remains the emotional center, always debating the real cost of what they’re trying to achieve. Gilbert, the lead, seems to be moral, but he’s too convinced of what he wants to realize that he’s empowering the suicidee. Gil’s also too aware that his degree and success and reputation are riding on this work…
As A Necessary Death progresses, this crew becomes dependent on a broken person. We see Matt – who wants to die – become empowered by the documentary crew that passively interferes with his intentions. This film is packed with people that are simultaneously real enough that we could know them, yet also are hard to accept on their own terms. Who doesn’t try to dissuade someone from suicide?! This movie can be hard to watch, no matter what the viewer knows…
It helps that the topic is controversial, and is handled so by the on-screen characters. The film students seem very self-serving, yet unsure of what they’re pursuing. Since this is supposed to be documentary footage, it raises a lot of questions. Should every war photographer be vilified because – on assignment – they photograph an injured person instead of rushing them out of a battlezone? Is it wrong to make a buck off of someone you possibly could’ve saved?
It gets deeper: if someone is truly on a documentary purpose, do they have an obligation to interfere with anything? Does making the world see the reality and after-effects of family abuse, suicide, or prostitution serve as the best arguments against those things? Does that make it morally acceptable to sit back and watch, or record, footage? And does artistic intent fall apart when a filmmaker reveals that they care about distribution and recognition – based on a real death?
I don’t think reporters should simply shoot the scene, but how did audiences respond to this film as if it were real? The female lead, Valerie Hurt, is so gorgeous (even in dumpy clothes and/or no makeup) that it seems unlikely that she’d be hung up on the single-minded director, Gilbert. The editing is too smooth for an underground picture, and it’s often clear that the subject really wants attention. Even on a basic level, if a documentary director appears so often in their own film, they’ve failed their subject. In this case, Gilbert signs off on Matt’s funerary papers – which any lawyer could tell him is a very dumb idea. Gilbert’s ass would hurt for that, in court.
These elements put the reality of A Necessary Death into question. However, they don’t make the movie mindless. The wide range of ideas and characters should make this picture have many broad, different interpretations.
In the end, no matter how much this might hit too close to home, you can’t mistake this doc-within-a-doc as exploitative. The topic is well-served as the cast of AND makes all the debate points for us: how suicide is selfish; how hard it is to gauge someone’s motivations; how questionable it is to just watch (or profit or cheer) as someone self-destructs; how people accept or reject responsibility for their own actions, or rationalize them until it all becomes meaningless.
A Necessary Death was a very good movie. It’s not easy viewing for anyone with personal experience of suicide, but it’s well-made and smart and entertaining. I can’t believe it’s gotten so little attention – just read this interview with director Daniel Stamm, from its premiere at 2008’s SXSW. I can’t believe it was made 4 years ago!
Why haven’t most of us heard of this pic already? At the very least, it’ll be easy enough for you to see now: on May 29th of this year, the film was released for online purchase and rental through ITunes, Amazon Video, Youtube, Vudu, Playstation, XBox, as well as some cable and satellite providers’ Movies on Demand service.
You should watch it, and never mistake this film for an account of real events. Just follow the narrative, and enjoy when the picture turns the tables on the people that it’s filming; the results are shocking and karmically-complicated in a way that I liked.