Friday, April 1, 2011

Barbara Celis' SURVIVING AMINA: a child dies, parents struggle, filmmaker records

If death is always difficult, untimely death is more so, and that of a small child worst of all. The situation at the heart of SURVIVING ANIMA is a one-year-old with leukemia cared for by her Swiss mother (who has adopted Italy as her home country) and her Italian father. With uncommon empathy and simpli-city, filmmaker Barbara Celis leads us immediately into the heart of things. She does nothing fancy; she simply shoots and shows.

Ms Celis, shown at right, came to this project without remotely knowing the extent of it. She was initially asked by her friend Anne to record the birth of her second child. A few months after that birth, the baby Amina was rushed to the hospital and emerged with a diagnosis of leukemia. Celis continued filming over a period of nearly three years, and what she records takes us into unusual territory.  We get to know Anne, her husband Tommaso, and their son Francesco and of course little Amina -- a baby everybody seems to love, and it's easy to see why. Plump and adorable, she is -- from what we gather here, at least -- almost always in a good mood.

Raising two kids is hard enough, but this situation proves taxing in ways for which no parent can be prepared. And Anne (above with Amina) and Tommaso (below with both children) aren't. They squabble, withdraw, cry, reach out, then begin the cycle all over again.  In the midst of it all, a month behind with their rent, they discover their landlord wants to evict them.

Through this Ms Celis navigates the line betwen watching and prying with surprising grace. Only once or twice, coming in close, then closer on Tommaso, are we even much aware of her camera. She also shoots the city in Italy where the husband and wife first met with such beauty that you know why this place is so important to them both.

Anne is a performer and theater director, Tommaso a sculptor (one of his pieces is shown in the foreground, above); New York would seem the perfect place for the couple and their family, but after the death, they return to Italy.  We see a family gathering at which Anne insists on showing videos of Amina; Tommaso, who says he does not need these, departs.

Title cards explain what happened to this famiy -- it's bittersweet -- and then comes a charming, surprising epilogue, in which an old relative, also called Amina (below), explains the meaning of the name. If nothing else (and there's a lot "else"), Celis' documentary should stand as the record of a situation that no family ought to have to endure -- and of the little girl who proves one of the most memorable babies this viewer has encountered.

Suviving Amina (65 minutes long), which has now been shown in two documentary festivals -- Semana Internacional de Cine de Valladolid, Spain, and Visions du Reel Film Festival, Nyon, Switzerland -- as well as on Swiss TV, is having its New York debut this comng Tuesday evening, April 5, at Anthology Film Archives as part of the New Filmmakers Series. Tickets go on sale at 5:30 pm that day. See you there?

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