When director Peter Liechti introduced his film at Hot Docs, he said that the impetus for the film occurred while listening to the CD narration of Miira ni narumade (How I became a Mummy) by the Japanese writer Shimada Masahiko which was accompanied by music. He said that it haunted him, that it was a mystery he wanted to solve, and that it remains a mystery even after making this film.
I was intrigued. All I knew was that the film was based on the diary of a man who had walked into the woods and committed suicide by starvation. That it took him over two months to die, and that he left behind a detailed account of his experience.
The film is from the point of view of that unnamed man. We see the woods, the grass, the raindrops on the leaves. We see the plastic tarpaulin he has arranged as a shelter. We see his world in his final days and as we see this we listen to his diary entries. Some entries are perfunctory: how he had bought items to aid him in his quest for death – the plastic sheeting for shelter, shaving items, a radio, even eau de cologne. Other entries are more philosophical: “Listening to Bach, it erases hunger. Is music food?” His connection to the radio is as close as we get to feeling that this man may feel nostalgia for the world he is leaving behind. After several days without food, he hears an announcer’s voice and claims it is “bell-like.” It is so lovely that he remarks that even while starving, he can still fall in love.
The sound recordings of the film are truly eerie. It is the sound rather than the images that create this world of life between death. The dripping of rain, the swooshing of leaves, the sound of insects (naturally.) As the pine needles collect on the plastic sheeting, the man writes about how he would like to reverse the insignificance of his life by the remarkableness of his death.
After 30-odd days sans food, the man begins to hear things. He imagines that a taxi driver has arrived to take him to the other side. He calls out “I’m here!” He thinks, “was I already dead when I started fasting? Death is only the remaining 2%.” And I sat in my seat contemplating how close we are to death at any given moment. I felt my senses open up to the film, and allowed the rain to wash over me, and I accepted the director’s interpretations of what the man’s memories might be – a plane flying upside down, a woman’s face, a tear rolling out, then rolling back in. A boat with two jolly passengers.
But the man will not die. He subsists beyond Jesus’ forty days – and yet he can still write lucidly. As he thinks about his compatriot, Jesus, he does not become religious. He remains a non-believer and his only overarching emotion is fear. Towards the “end” he jokes about his tenacity – how he should be entered into the Guiness Book of Records. I myself, at this point, question his ability to be so lucid – it’s been two months now of no food and very little water. His legs have failed him long ago, but he can still write?
As the credits roll, I notice that the film is based on a novel by Shimada Masahiko. A novel? Instantly I shake my head. If this film is an interpretation of a novel, doesn’t that make it non-fiction? I am curious to hear the Q & A with the director. Sure enough, the very first question that is asked by an audience member is “Was there any truth to this film? Was it based on fact?” The film-maker avoids the question with a “what is truth” kind of answer. The next question is “Was there a diary? Was there a man that died in this fashion and was the novel based on the diary?” Apparently, Masahiko had come across a diary of this sort, but Liechti never saw it. Essentially, the film is an interpretation of an interpretation of a questionable suicide by starvation. At this point, an audience member calls out “Why was this film at Hot Docs?” To me, a reasonable question – it is a festival celebrating and showcasing non-fiction film. I have to say I felt a little bad for Liechti (I always cringe at hecklers – artists have a tough enough time as it is “putting themselves out there”) and I was satisfied with his response: “For the answer to that question you would have to ask the festival programmers.”
So now I have a question for the programmers! And it’s a good question – what is a documentary film? A part of me thinks the programmers allowed this film in the festival in order to spark that very debate.
For more about “Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy” visit the Hot Docs site here.