Before we start speaking in length about The Art of Disappearing, a word must be said about the short film it was running with, “Our Curse”. Sliwinski became the proud winner of the Best Documentary Short award last night. It is easy to see why. The topic of the documentary is a very personal one for the director – he is in the limelight along with his wife and his infant son Leo who suffers from Ondine’s curse. Ondine’s curse is the common name of a rare disease where the patient is in grave danger of sleep apnea whenever they sleep and must therefore always sleep attached to a lung ventilator.
We watch The Sliwinski family try to adapt to their new lives during the first couple of weeks little Leo is home. There are medical procedures the parents must perform daily, machinery malfunctions in the dead of night and all this combines with the fear the two young parents felt for their son’s future. The topic of the documentary and the way it is filmed is paired back to basics – literally just the director and his camera. We are, for all intents and purposes watching a home movie, bringing us closer to the Sliwiniskis very quickly. This, in turn, makes some of the sequences positively heart-rending to watch. But the film definitely also takes the time to show the joy Leo has brought to the couples’ life and the enjoyment they clearly derive from each other’s company. The documentary does end on rather an uncertain note as Leo is still a baby, but judging by what we see of the strength of this family, I am fairly certain they are going to be just fine.
And now, what of our “main film”? Be warned, from the very start, The Art of Disappearing is so far out of the ordinary that you will either absolutely love it or end up completely hating it. It is poetic, abstract and metaphysical. It also involves a goodly helping of politics and world history too. Sound complicated? Not really. The Art of Disappearing is less of a conventional film and more of an “experience”.
You have to be there to know what I mean, but I shall endeavour to explain anyway. The Art of Disappearing is the rather remarkable true story of Amon Fremon, a Haitian voodoo priest. In the year 1980, Amon travels to Communist Poland. Polish soldiers helped Haiti gain their independence from France 200 years ago – Amon himself believes he may be part Polish – so he feels duty bound to help Poland. It is very clear to Amon that things are not all “right” in Poland. So he prepares to perform a big Voodoo ritual to “save” Poland. And in the meanwhile he tries to make sense of all the strange and wonderful things he sees around him in this foreign – and yet sometimes not so foreign – land.
It is a truly, truly fascinating experience seeing something as recognisable as the Solidarity movement and characters from modern Polish history like Lech Walesa through the eyes of a person from a culture so far away he could be an actual alien. Filmmakers Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosołowski are no strangers to this concept of inverting a perspective; in their 2010 documentary Rabbit a la Berlin, they told the story of the Berlin Wall from the point of view of the rabbits that lived around it. In The Art of Disappearing directors use a combination of archive footage and fictional footage (with no really clear indication which is which. Not that, after a certain point in the film, this actually matters) to try and describe ’80s Poland from Amon’s perspective. The only place where the concept slightly falls apart is the fact that unless you have a reasonably good hold on Polish history of the 1980’s, there will be quite a few times where you will have difficulty following what is happening on the screen. The way historical events are presented from a completely different, almost abstract and poetic perspective is very, very cleverly done but also does not contain any exposition, or narration. So yes, this is a documentary but at the same time the viewer has to do quite a lot of “running” for themselves.
That is not to say we don’t learn and experience new things. Via footage of voodoo ceremonies and the tribal music that permeates the documentary we learn about, and get to feel what a genuine Haitian voodoo ceremony might feel like. We learn how figures from Polish Catholicism have been “translated” into the Voodoo religion as minor characters when Amon is surprised and pleased to note them along his travels.
The Art of Disappearing is definitely one of those films that each viewer takes away something different from. It is not always particularly clear in what it is trying to say, but then again that is part of the beauty of it. I definitely recommend it if you have penchant for this sort of abstract work. Because if you do, this is going to be one heck of an experience.