For nearly 30 years, the filmmaker Alan Berliner has made uniquely personal documentaries that mine his life and the lives of his relatives, chipping away at seemingly routine stories to find a more precise, poetic, and nuanced narrative. His films display a relentless curiosity about the people closest to him—territory fraught with pitfalls.
Berliner’s 1996 film Nobody’s Business examined his father, a lonely, divorced, retired salesman. Throughout the documentary, we hear the senior Berliner barking his objections with “my life is nothing!” and “you’re boring the shit out of me!” But as details of his past are revealed, Berliner’s father becomes a complex, lively figure in history, while, at every turn, the audience is compelled to adjust their perception of him.
In Berliner’s newest film, First Cousin Once Removed, the filmmaker again focuses on family: in this case Edwin Honig, a relative, poet, friend, and mentor with Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of—and despite—his illness, Honig remains a surprisingly deep and thoughtful person whose views of the world color his interactions with Berliner. Sometimes, Honig is unable even to speak. The film is painful, beautiful, and, as with Berliner’s previous works, makes us consider again and again what we think of this man, and of the value of memory.
First Cousin Once Removed will have its broadcast premiere on Monday, Sept. 23, on HBO. Berliner joins Tablet arts and culture editor Matthew Fishbane to discuss how Edwin Honig viewed his loss of memory, how forgetting can sometimes be a blessing, and how Berliner understands his own work as a way to stave off a similar fate. [Running time: 27:23.]