HBO’s First Cousin Once Removed is an interesting documentary from filmmaker Alan Berliner that looks at famed poet Edwin Honig’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease. The film, running shy of 80 minutes, is a revealing expose of the personal effects of the disease and how Honig and his family cope with the memory loss. Many subjects are discussed, including Berliner’s motives in filming these private moments and Honig’s wishes to be documented even as his memory loss continues.
The film features no-frills documentation. Berliner essentially records interviews with his subject and filters in some of their personal history. The commentary is often poignant, showcasing Honig’s skills as a writer and academic. Other family members are also featured, one of whom objects to the cameras rolling during such an intimate time in the subject’s life.
Berliner is also a character. The film is a document of the disease and its effects, but the director’s connection to Gonig is key to understanding not only the genesis of the project but its overall impact on the family.
As the movie progresses so too does the Alzheimer’s. Gonig forgets often and nears the end before the camera’s eyes. Even in these final scenes, Berliner tries to both document and respect the reality.
The access is all-encompassing. HBO states on its website that the project was filmed over five years, which is impressive and adds to the breadth of the material. The New York Times reports that Honig died in 2011 at the age of 91.
Viewers, some of who may have a personal connection to the disease, will react in different ways. For most audience members the images of Gonig going through his memories — some escaping, some never to return — will be the saddest and realest part of First Cousin Once Removed. This is an exploration of a man’s life told through his struggle with a disease that is taking the memories of that life away. That makes for an engaging, interesting document on the realities of Alzheimer’s and also an opportunity for some poetic thoughts on life, legacy and the act of remembering.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
- First Cousin Once Removed
- Directed by Eli Berliner
- Featuring Berliner and Edwin Honig
- Running time: 80 minutes
- Appeared on HBO