Pawel Lozinski’s meditation on family does not avoid gendered metaphors
You Have No Idea How Much I Love You, an experimental documentary by Polish director Pawel Lozinski, screened recently as part of ‘Frames of Representations: New Visions for Documentary Cinema’ festival at the London ICA. The festival, in its second year, explored the theme of the contemporary experience of ‘working’ in its social, political and cultural guises. Numerous films in the programme engaged with the issues of manual labour and exploitation rather viscerally. However, as signalled in the title of Argentinian-Brazilian documentary Docile Bodies (Los Cuerpos Dociles), it is useful to draw on ideas of Michel Foucault when considering a multi-layered regime of control of human bodies within society. Lozinski’s film focuses on immaterial kinds of labour which are still performed within the overarching framework of power and access to knowledge.
The film has been promoted as ‘representing psychotherapy on screen’ and a meditation on family and the complexity of our relationships with people in our lives. It is an edited record of five therapy sessions between estranged mother (Ewa) and daughter (Hania), led with authority by the renowned Polish psychiatrist and psychotherapist Bogdan de Barbaro. With his guidance, two women try to recover or perhaps re-invent a shared language after what the viewer concludes must have been years of misunderstandings and spells of outright silence. Reserved and awkward in the beginning, from session to session Ewa and Hania talk more freely, both expressing grievances about each other and reflecting on their own lives, thoughts and emotions.
In this space of vulnerability and healing, the therapist exercises his power by imposing the specific technique: the women are encouraged not to talk to directly to each other but rather use de Barbaro as a mediator and a conduit. Presenting his power as gentle, he offers himself during the first session as the necessary ‘third’, thus enabling the loosening of the knot between the two. This setup draws attention to the therapist’s effort alongside perhaps more obvious labour performed here by two clients, ‘working through’ their thorny relationship. The stories of past disappointments and life’s turning points are theirs but it’s the therapist who makes them think about those words, showing how powerful the act of naming is and how changing a certain phrase can help reconciliation.
Although the fruits of the hard labour of therapy done by three protagonists may be invisible, their combined efforts seem to pay off, and in the last onscreen session it seems that a certain progress has been made. As de Barbaro’s therapy seems to have reached its goal, the wider questions arise, such as that of the documentary’s impact on its audience, as we witness the therapeutic process, and the related one of our labour – the work we do in the process of viewing. It’s rather common to discuss documentary-making as therapeutic for filmmakers, and sometimes their families, and Lozinski himself made a film called Father and son (2013), in which he films an extended conversation with his father about certain painful past events as they are stuck together in a campervan on a long journey through Europe. Can this kind of therapy extend to the audience?
Risking a hackneyed statement from the realm of audience reception theories, I suggest that what goes through the head of a viewer, confronted with close-ups of Hania and Ewa’s faces sculpted by raw emotions in real time, very much depends on their family history and relationships with other people. While Polish writer Sylwia Chutnik was enthused (in Polish) about the film, admitting she cried through most of it, I did not feel their pain as mine.
Lozinski explains his casting decision, made after filming 25 mixed-gender couples in different family configurations, by the fact that Ewa and Hania were “so authentic, so brave to give their real stories”. However, the issue of gender is too crucial to be dismissed in the name of universality of interpersonal relationships, not least because the gendered metaphor presides over this therapy: the last words spoken by de Barbaro before the credits roll refer to the healing of the wound after the umbilical cord is severed. As a feminist critic, I found it difficult not to diverge from the singular case of ‘Ewa and Hania’ into the gendered discourse they grew up in, they live in, and from within which they speak. The film was at times painful for me to watch, but not because I empathised with their pain. I cringed when the two were rehashing clichés about ‘mad’ old women, distant and passionless mothers, and so on. On the other hand, I cheered Hania on as she confronted her childhood view of the ‘cool father’, who in fact abandoned her, but she only confronted this after her mother recalled being sick in a car all over herself after her husband had left her.
Whether the process of filming enhanced the therapy we witness is problematised by the piece of information revealed towards the end, which I am not going to disclose and which made my work as a reviewer considerably harder. Because of the specific situations and emotions the women describe, the film can resonate powerfully, though in different ways, to each individual viewer. When it comes to ‘working’, this year’s festival theme, the way Ewa and Hania reflect on their past shows evidence of a great amount of ‘emotional labour’: the effort put into managing not only your emotions in a stressful situation but also those of others. This work of making sure that ‘everyone is OK’, performed in society overwhelmingly by women, often remains taken for granted or sidelined. In Lozinski’s film, you can find it if you look beneath the dominant layer of a family therapy narrative.
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