Director: Tien Hao Wang
Running time: 6mins
On a recent visit to England, I was lucky enough to find time to sit for a proper chat with my esteemed IFL colleague Tony Moore. As you might have realised from his reviews, he is big on gallows humour, and regularly has a habit of finding absurd humour in the darkest of subjects. During our latest tête-à-tête, it occurred to me that might have rubbed off on me.
Dementia of various kinds seems to run in my family, and at a certain point it came up in our conversation at which point Tony began skewering the perverse way in which the UK state forces people to live on in abject misery; shells of their former selves, ghosts haunting their surviving loved ones, long after the person they once were has ceased to be. I don’t know what I’d do if I was diagnosed, I said, before reflexively laughing, “actually, if I do get my Dutch citizenship, I know exactly what I’d do.”
It is of course easy for me to say at this stage, in the comfort of my relatively-healthy 30s. If and when the time comes for me to make such a call, and the void yawns before me, I may suddenly feel less cavalier about inducing the end. But I do know that I would always want the choice. Everyone should be able to make that most intimate and personal of final calls. And so here I will stay. While my country of birth would expect me to cling to life for as long as possible, until nothing beyond my meagre flesh and bones remain, euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2001 – and it remains one of the few nations to allow assisted dying on the basis of dementia.
It is an imperfect system, with stringent control mechanisms that make self-chosen end-of-life anything but easy – and remains controversial, with one particular case in which someone who signed off on the procedure while they had capacity, but forgot when the day came to action the request. The case led Dutch lawmakers to further legislate that doctors could not be prosecuted for carrying out dementia on these grounds. It is not likely to be the last time they need to intervene to clarify on the nuances around euthanasia. But having the choice on the table for people here, and working to improve that over the years, is objectively better than not having it at all.
Looking at the film at hand, Forever – The Life of a Caregiver, these are some of the many discussions the documentary really ought to have touched upon; particularly as Taiwan, where it takes place, is currently crawling its way through its own debate on assisted dying for terminally ill people. While those suffering from such illnesses, loved ones, legal experts and associated pressure groups have been increasingly bringing the topic into the mainstream, no politician is willing to take a stance on it beyond hinting at a referendum on the matter – a non-committal stance with little promise of action, even if such a vote would come to pass.
Unfortunately, at a meagre six minutes, Tien Hao Wang’s short documentary does nothing to tie the story of the unnamed couple depicted to wider social and political discourse. What we do get is three brief sketches of life as a carer for a long-term partner. After spending a few moments trying to stoke up past memories of the people they are meeting, an elderly woman leads her husband – suffering from an unspecified form of dementia – through a crowded museum. At this stage, he is almost entirely non-verbal, so it is hard to really know what he is thinking beyond an old friend asking “do you remember me?” – prompting the faintest of nods.
The camera – presumably piloted and edited by Tien Hao Wang, who supplies no credits or thanks to contributors at all in the final ‘credit’ – then takes up a fly-on-the-wall position, documenting a final family meal at the old house, to celebrate lunar new year. The woman – who has slaved over the stove to feed her family, while also had to juggle care duties of her husband – is exhausted, but the younger guests (presumably their children) are of no help. When she suggests there will be no repeat performance to this event, because she can no-longer handle it all, they shruggingly suggest ‘that’s probably for the best’ – utterly failing to take the hint that they might help, even when their father apparently wets himself. As the woman insists on cleaning what she is sure is urine, her presumed daughter suggests that it’s “probably just water“, and that her mother should return to the table to enjoy the feast she has prepared. It is an unconvincing suggestion, the reeks of ‘let’s eat, so we can get out of here already’.
There is a lot packed into this scene – so much that warrants unpacking, from the children’s resignation to their father’s condition, to the indifference at their mother’s struggles, there are elephants crammed cheek-by-jowl in this tiny room – but frankly Tien Hao Wang seems as disinterested as the guests. Whether that is out of respect for the family who invited the director into their home, or a genuine lack of empathy is hard to tell – but it speaks to a wider reluctance to ask questions, which renders the grim footage gained slightly exploitative as a result.
That is particularly the case after the final moments. With the man having apparently urinated all over the bathroom floor, the woman is seen chastising him, asking “why do you have to make everyone hate you?” It is understandable why she is upset, and angry in this moment – though laying the blame with him is clearly a desperate act of transference. He is in no state to take responsibility for anything he does, whereas the children they recently hosted – or the wider society they have no escaped back into – very much can, and have done nothing to alleviate his and her suffering. Be that through better home support – rather than bundling him off to a for-profit care home, where he will likely be neglected at great expense to the family – or offering up a compassionate exit, for people in his position, should they choose to take it.
The finale of the film comes so close to picking up on this. The director finally breaks their silence to address the woman directly – asking how long she can go on like this. After suggesting she feels she cannot, but also that she could not bare to pass on care to “another” who would do “a bad job”, she concludes “I’ll only let go when I collapse.”
This would serve as a raw and emotive cry for help, were Tien Hao Wang more invested in building any kind of narrative into proceedings, which might be carried away with audiences after the end comes. Unfortunately, without this the most we can take from the events of Forever – The Life of a Caregiver is a voyeuristic sense of relief if we are lucky enough for our own lives to not be like the ones on screen. Whatever the intentions were for making this film, then, in its current form the project comes across as having a distasteful obsession with showing the worst aspects of its subject, without any meaningful call to action. Action which is badly needed in the name of empathy and human dignity.
Of course, ‘campaign film’ is not the only route Forever – The Life of a Caregiver could have taken to serve up more substance. When All That’s Left is Love depicted a similar later-years-relationship, with the director following the devastating impacts of dementia on his own father and mother. But that film was filled with the kind of care, craft and empathy that is almost entirely absent here, because it treats its cast as human beings – rather than touristic curiosities – and regularly dares to ask them how they feel about what is going on. That’s a far cry from this cold and detached affair anthropological study.