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Finding Poetry in Memory Loss: Alan Berliner's 'First Cousin Once Removed'

By Ron Deutsch

Edwin Honig, subject of Alan Berliner's First Cousin Once Removed. Courtesy of Alan Berliner

Alan Berliner is one of the most respected and honored documentary filmmakers of our time. He's earned three Emmy Awards and an IDA Documentary Award, as well as numerous grants, fellowships and artist residencies. In addition to his filmography, he has exhibited his photography and video and audio installations in galleries and museums worldwide. He also finds time to teach at universities and colleges in New York City, where he resides.

In his documentaries—he prefers to call them "investigations"—Berliner trains his camera where most fear to venture: on himself and his family. "The way that I've expressed it over the years is that I make films from the inside out," he explains. Intimate Stranger (1991) was about his grandfather; Nobody's Business (1996), his father; The Sweetest Sound (2001) and Wide Awake (2006), himself. His latest film, First Cousin Once Removed, focuses on his cousin, the late poet Edwin Honig.

"To make films that use my own life as the laboratory and use characters in my life as the characters in these investigations gives me a kind of freedom to go places," Berliner explains. Yet at the same time, those places are often fraught with danger. "Each of my films has a tremendous risk and fear factor. I thought maybe my father would never talk to me again after Nobody's Business.

 "Even thinking about First Cousin Once Removed," Berliner continues. "I'm not a visitor into someone else's universe or house. Edwin is my cousin. So that kind of access into the way we communicate in our family to the bonds of trust, to the power of the history that connects us, both spoken and unspoken—that kind of karmic dynamic allows me to move around with a kind of confidence and freedom that I might not ever have had if I was visiting someone else who had Alzheimer's."

Honig was one of America's most respected poets, but was also renowned for his translations of works by many great Spanish and Portuguese writers, and he was a professor of English and comparative literature at Brown University for 25 years. To Berliner, Honig was a valued mentor and friend. The filmmaker spent the last five years of his cousin's life visiting him regularly, and recording his physical and mental decline. Honig died in 2011 at the age of 91.

"When I look at Edwin, I don't just see Edwin," Berliner says. "Edwin looks like his father, and his father looked like my grandmother, and my grandmother reminds me of my mother, and my mother, is a mirror too, even into my own son. So when I look into Edwin's face, I'm seeing this ineffable hall of mirrors that connects me to all sorts of mysterious connections about identity."

Berliner didn't set about to make a film about Alzheimer's disease, he notes, which is why he doesn't interview doctors and caregivers, nor delves into the clinical side of the disease. Something deeper and more elusive ignited his passion: "It was about the getting to the heart of what memory is, what memory means, the construction of identity through memory, and how memory is the glue of life, and how when you lose it, it becomes the scissors of life."

Since Honig was a poet, Berliner felt it was important to honor his cousin's memory by making the film an exploration into the life of a poet, and his film was conceived in poetic terms. "Poets' lives are not arbitrary," Berliner states. "For poets, it's all or nothing. They are the translators of human experience. They're the people we turn to in order to put words and images to the feelings, emotions and experiences we don't understand or know how to deal with. He even says at one point in the film, 'What you're doing is like writing a poem. You're changing what people are thinking and making them think what you want them to think.' So I felt challenged to make a work of cinematic poetry because of who Edwin was. And not only do I believe that Edwin was a poet right through his last day of life, but I realized Edwin was experiencing what might otherwise be called 'A Poet's Alzheimer's.'

"My film shows Edwin as a poet throughout the course of his journey—though a better word is metamorphosis—through memory loss," Berliner continues. "So you strip away words from a wordsmith, you strip away the command of language, and what are you left with? You're left with sublime musicality—talking in rhythm, beats, tapping, humming and singing. But at its core, it's the essential bearing of a poetic soul. And I like to think my film allows for that. At one point in the film, I show him a maraca that he'd been playing with [my son] Eli earlier that day. He looks at it and says, 'I have no night of what I knew in the morning.' Where does that even come from? And earlier, he says, 'Once upon a time I was an interesting fellow, now I don't read or write without a bed of Jello.' What I started to realize is that if there's really such a thing as a poet's Alzheimer's, especially in the case of people whose work and life are so intertwined, you could imagine a mathematician's Alzheimer's or a musician's Alzheimer's—maybe even a truck driver's Alzheimer's."

Given that Honig was also a translator, Berliner felt that he was acting as Honig's translator through his dementia. "The deeper level here is that memory itself is actually the translator in life," he says. "Memory allows us to translate the past—what we glean from experience—and bring it to the present. Both past and present, through the mysteries of consciousness, allow us to interpolate, imagine, plan for, and hope for what we call a future. Without memory, Edwin is stuck in a kind of perpetual present. He doesn't know there is a past to glean from; he's no longer learned the lessons of the past, because the past isn't there anymore. As the disease progresses, he loses more and more of a sense of the future. Therefore, he says, 'Time now is what I do when I sit in this chair.'  So I often thought of myself as a sort of emissary from the depths of his Alzheimer's journey. He says, 'I know there's a past and I know that I lived in it,' and that he gave it up to live in the present. But that's still awareness; that bespeaks awareness of the journey, of the process of losing it.

"At a point where thoughts about religion, the notion of God and any other kind of epistemological or existential issues have more or less left him," Berliner continues, "he's nevertheless formed a kind of new world view, which he articulates in the film. What he is basically saying is that his new religion is based on the changing of the trees. 'The leaves are moving, but they're still. They change, even though you don't want them to change. They're always changing.' So he's locked into the notion of change and that's what he believes in. And when I started the film, he was just looking out the window. Then I realized he was talking about the trees all the time. And then I realized, 'Wow. The leaves are a metaphor for memory.' They start green, they turn yellow, then they turn brown, and then they fall off."

And as the film delves deeper into this exploration of memory, Honig also makes us consider its inverse: the importance of forgetting, of letting go of the memories of the past. For Honig had what he himself called "his three griefs." There was the tragic death of his younger brother when they were children, an event that shaped and plagued him his entire life; the loss of his first wife; and his second divorce and estrangement from his two sons. And at some point, he lost memory of all those events.

 "The other thing about the film," Berliner explains, "is that you start out doing one thing, and then because it's just part of life and it's just the way the mind works, you end up going to some other place and doing something else, or realizing something else, or getting insights that take you to other places. I made a film about the memory loss of a man who had a lot that he both needed and wanted to forget. At the end I say, 'You are in a film, and millions of people are watching and you can say anything you want.' And what does he say? 'Remember how to forget.' And in context, what he's saying is what is true in life: If we couldn't forget, we would all go insane. So forgetting is a very, very powerful force in both sanity, and in keeping the world in perspective.

"So it's made me think about my own memory," Berliner concludes, "and the crutches and tools I use to remember—not to mention that each of us has disappointments and traumas in our lives. I realized how in my story, I'm really happy that I'm able to forget a lot of things. Edwin's advice there, 'Remember how to forget,' is really powerful and poignant—and really true. For all of us."

First Cousin Once Removed was the 2012 Grand Prize Winner for Best Feature Length Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). It premieres September 23 on HBO,

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor to Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his trusty cat, Miles.