(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Nisha Platzer
Programme: Northern Lights (World Premiere)
What lives are preserved in film frames? Director Nisha Platzer explores this question with sincerity and poetry in back home. Her feature documentary debut reflects upon the loss of her big brother, Josh, following a suicide at age 15. It’s a film defined by both life and longing as fate brings Platzer back into the lives of Josh’s “chosen family.” Platzer reunites with Swan, the mother of Josh’s best friend, Sam, twenty years after Josh’s death. Over five years, Platzer dives deep into Josh’s journal and reminisces about her brother with Swan, Sam, and Sam’s siblings, who were also good friends with Josh. What follows is a poetic journey of remembrance and closure as Josh’s two families reconcile their long-gestating grief.
Platzer’s reunion with Swan, moreover, is appropriately metaphorical. She has lingering pain in her feet and a doctor recommends a unique form of yoga. Oddly enough, Swan is the only local yogi. As they reconnect, Swan helps Platzer heal at least one form of pain.
The director learns from Swan all about the brother she never really knew. Platzer, four years younger than Josh, was only 11 when he died. Although she notes moments of love at home, she mostly recalls Josh as a moody storm that came and went. However, Swan speaks of the great bond she observed between Josh, Sam, and their friends. She provides reassuring insight about fleeting moments of happiness. Similarly, when Platzer reunites with Sam and the fam for a belated ‘celebration of life,’ everyone focuses on the joy Josh brought to their lives. Sam, for example, offers a carefully hand-written card from Josh that illustrates how much their friendship meant to him. Looking back is therefore bittersweet.
Two Families United in Grief
Platzer looks at her family as well amid the visits and email exchanges with Swan and Sam. Her parents, Jude and Ben, don’t seem to have ever fully recovered from the loss of their son. As Swan’s recollections contextualize them, Nisha grasps that parents never really get over the death of a child, especially one that was so sudden and, to them, surprising. There’s palpable pain in the parents’ voices as they recall the aftermath of Josh’s death, but also notes of love. Ben, for example, tells of the support group the neighbours formed under their noses. He explains to his daughter how neighbours formed a kind of community watch group. They’d alternate daily visits to let the Platzers know they weren’t alone. The film also shows how Jude throws herself into suicide prevention awareness. She wants to mother to miss the signs that she did.
back home deftly incorporates Josh’s pain into the design. The film blends 16mm and Super8 footage with lo-fi vérité shots of the reunions. Although the collage leans a bit too heavily on B-roll-ish re-enactments to bridge the inevitable gaps in the visual assembly, back home uses these dramatic recreations to blur past and present. Even though Josh has been gone 20 years, he’s always with these family members whose lives have been transformed by his absence.
Plazter also works her journey as a filmmaker into the story and form of back home. For one, the film observes as she and Josh’s friend Sara to school in Cuba for cinema and medicine, respectively. Filmmaking offers a lens through which they can assess their grief. back home offers cutaways to Platzer as she develops the film reels and hangs the negatives to dry. After Josh’s death, she says she found solace in her school’s dark room, so the film pays tribute to Josh on two levels. Most strikingly, Platzer explores her brother’s complex psychology through film form. Scratches, hand tints, and punctures yield a patchy and hazy design. There’s a disorienting frenzy to back home as the memories collide with evocative symbols of Josh’s depression.
back home also immortalizes Josh quite literally in the film image. The developing process is the result of the film being buried with Josh’s ashes. Much like Jacquelyn Mills’ revelatory Geographies of Solitude released earlier this year, back home harnesses the very elements of its subject matter to bring the film to life. There’s a stark tactility to the images of back home, as well as a haunting, ethereal quality. The film evokes the spirits and memories that linger. back home offers a poignant, personal consideration of family, wellness, and the (im)permanence of all things that walk the earth.
back home premieres at VIFF 2022.
Correction: This review previously stated that Platzer and Sara both studied film in Cuba. Sara studied medicine. This article also changed the language by request to note “a suicide” in the opening paragraph.