The subject of Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed is the renowned poet, translator, critic and professor, Edwin Honig, whose memory has gradually been eroded by Alzheimer’s disease. Once knighted by the rulers of Spain and Portugal for his literary translations, Honig can no longer remember who he is but remains, at least intermittently, a compelling figure, prickly, playful and deeply insightful, with a formidable, fractured mind. Berliner’s documentary is an attempt to reconstruct his past and connect it to his present identity, and, in doing so, get to the heart of what memory means.

Honig’s ability to communicate varies greatly throughout the film and it is clear that he is no longer the man he once was. Frequently reduced to vacant stares, noises and whistles, he appears lost within himself, clutching at shadows of recollection that continually elude him. His sister, Lila, comments early on that we are witnessing ‘the unspeakable, the unseeable, the unsayable…People want to see it and don’t want to see it,’ and yet there is something vital in what is being documented. Honig’s moments of lucidity, his oblique, quite profound abstractions, have the wisdom of age but are stripped of the context of a life, giving them an intuitive, almost primitive, truth.

Although the film was shot over a period of five years, Berliner adopts what he calls a ‘cubist timeframe’, intercutting the material to extract new meanings and ironies. Conversations from different interviews are pieced together according to theme and this allows him to explore topics in more depth, without being constrained by Honig’s failing memory. The interviews are also juxtaposed with archive footage, which is used to create complex metaphors and gives the film an allusive style. These innovative techniques combine to create a kind of visual poetry, which is in turn enhanced by the recurring aural motif of Honig’s typewriter.

In his questioning, his probing, Berliner does not flinch, as he conscientiously searches for meaning in his old friend’s existence. Showing him old photographs, videos and poems, he attempts to identify what has been lost and what remains, whether any memories are indestructible and what this might imply. Those that appear to persist are his life’s great tragedies, predominantly the death of his younger brother, which he witnessed as a child. Having always blamed himself for the accident, Honig seems incapable of forgetting it entirely and the memory splinters out into disconnected thoughts and incomplete expressions.

Another crucial element in understanding Honig’s life story is his estrangement from his two sons, neither of whom he can remember at all. They both provide interviews for the film, revealing a quite different side to the man Berliner describes as a close friend and invaluable mentor. They paint a picture of a harsh father and a relentless critic, who loved them so oppressively that it eventually became completely unbearable. His ex-wife, a former student, can no longer bring herself to read poetry, while his younger son describes Lorca, Pessoa and Cervantes as ‘thorns in [his] side‘. The tragedy of Honig’s condition is that he is unable to redeem this past; it exists in the lives of others but he is entirely removed from it, unable to explain or even recall why it happened.

His literary grounding perhaps gives him an extra level of insight into his present reality and, ironically, his own work displays a haunting familiarity with his condition. When he says, ‘I know there was a past and I know that I lived in it, and that I gave it up to live only in the present,’ it could have come from one of his poems, which are replete with voices that express a need to forget who they are. In this subtle but remarkably layered phrase, the agency lies with Honig rather than his condition; on the surface it is an eloquent description of the process of Alzheimer’s disease but, on a deeper level, it is an articulation of guilt and penance.

The film as a whole is similarly multifaceted, which stems from Honig’s complex personality, the changeable nature of his condition and, above all, Berliner’s earnest quest for meaning in all that is said and done. He presses his subject on matters that sometimes seem insignificant, but this approach proves extremely valuable, revealing hidden truths and recurring ideas that would otherwise have remained locked away. The editing and structural innovations are vital to the film’s success, but it is Berliner’s dedication to Honig, in spite of the painful and difficult circumstances, coupled with his belief in his capacity to teach us something profound, that elevates First Cousin Once Removed into a film of genuine artistry and depth.

Written by Rob Dickie

First Cousin Once Removed was screened in the presence of Alan Berliner in Edinburgh Filmhouse and Glasgow Fim Theatre as part of SMHAFF 2013.