A problem with documentary cinema (and with consciousness) is human subjectivity. No matter how objective a documentarian tries to be, bias lives in the editing, in the inclusion or exclusion of material. It doesn’t matter if you watch a documentary about salmon fishing or soap. You are being told a story through someone’s lens.
Henry Corra gets past all that. As a documentarian, Corra has pioneered “living cinema,” a filmmaking technique in which he becomes personally involved with his subjects, collaborating with them to co-create a work of art that tells the story as intimately as possible.
His most recent project, Farewell to Hollywood, is a collaboration with Regina Nicholson, a 17-year-old filmmaker battling cancer. Her goal is to make a film before she dies.
According to the film’s website, Corra met Reggie, “an obsessive cinephile who was battling a terminal illness,” at a film festival three years prior to the completion of Farewell, which was released in September last year.
“What developed over nearly two years is a powerful friendship and poignant relationship between Reggie and me. I became her collaborator, friend and defender in her fight to find artistic and personal freedom.”
Freedom and liberation is certainly the film’s theme. Reggie’s parents at first seem over-protective and churlish. They’re concerned as any parents would be when their dying daughter starts hanging out with a much older man. Then the film gets dark.
We almost can’t believe the audio: Reggie walks into her bedroom. Her mother asks if she’s wired with a mic. Reggie lies, “I’m not wired.”
“I wish you were dead,” her mother says.
When Reggie continues working on her film (and her friendship) with Corra, her parents kick her out and stop paying her medical bills. Keep in mind that this is a young woman who receives chemotherapy nearly every week and is on a host of different medications. Corra offers to care for her and cover her medical needs.
There is uncomfortable tension in the sheer exposure of the film. Farewell asks questions of privacy and ethics. In terms of death and suffering, what should we be allowed to see? How involved should filmmakers be in the making of a documentary, especially with so delicate a subject? An IndieWire reviewer said, “Moving or offensive? [Farewell to Hollywood is] the most paradoxical moviegoing experience of the year.”
By the end of the film, Reggie is alone with Corra in his house, bedridden. Returning to her parents’ objections, we can’t help but ask the obvious questions. What is the extent of his involvement, and why? Is he manipulating her? Exploiting her? Caring for her? All the above?
We will never see the countless hours of footage left out of the final cut, all the unrecorded conversations, but at least we see what Reggie wanted: a film about a girl whose grace surpassed her age; the story of a talented, promising young life and a world ill-suited to keep it.