A Necessary Death
Director: Daniel Stamm
Release Date: May 29, 2012 (DVD)
A Necessary Death is a mockumentary about the making of a documentary about suicide. Gilbert (G.J. Echternkamp) is a documentarian who wants to push the envelope for his thesis film. So he decides to make a film about suicide. More specifically, one person's suicide. From the initial planning stages up through the final act, Gilbert wants to get everything on film and give the person a chance to leave something more substantial than a suicide note.
Gilbert is joined by two other students and friends: Michael (Michael Traynor), his cinematographer, and Valerie (Valerie Hurt), his sound person. Both of them are understandably apprehensive about the project, but they are willing to give it a chance, at least in the preproduction stages. Then there is Daniel, the man behind the other camera. Daniel is the documentarian who is making the film that you are actually seeing. A Necessary Death is his project, not Gilbert's. Daniel is always there, always watching through the lens of his camera. He is only onscreen a couple of times in the film, but his hand is always felt.
Then there's the man himself. Matt (Matthew Tilley) suffers from a brain tumor which will kill him in a few months. He wants to end his own life before the tumor takes over and slowly destroys him. Whereas the other potential candidates Gilbert interviews all have some kind of future ahead of them, or might back out at the last minute (ruining the film), Matt has a clear expiration date. It convinces Gilbert's team to join him, and so the project really begins.
If A Necessary Death was made today, it would be a very different movie. Because it's set in 2006, the technology available to the team is more expensive and less powerful. With the advent of cheap DSLRs with incredibly powerful HD video capabilities, the cost of making films has decreased dramatically. The film is presented in Fullscreen (4:3) format, although the images here have been cropped to something closer to 16:9. With the advent of easily accessible digital cameras and sites like Kickstarter, Gilbert and his team would likely have had less trouble securing funding and equipment for the film.
As an aside, I'm curious what the reaction to something like this would be on Kickstarter. It seems like the kind of thing Kickstarter would take down, but I don't know for sure. Gilbert checks the hypothetical legality of what he is doing early on, and assuming they got someone who actually understands the law, I'm inclined to believe that what the film says is true. It's legal. Sketchy but legal.
That sketchiness is really what the film thrives on. The film necessarily raises a lot of questions about the ethics of suicide as well as the role of the documentary and the documentarian. Gilbert and his team support Matt's decision, because Matt has a completely justifiable reason for making it. They want to show the world that he was not just a depressed coward. He wanted to take his life into his own hands and end it on his terms. The question is of exploitation. By creating this film, are Gilbert and co. exploiting Matt's suffering? A pivotal scene involving the potential sale of the completed project makes it difficult to say no. But then again, Matt volunteered, and seemed content to know that it was intended to be seen.
What is more interesting is Daniel's project. Although Gilbert and his team go through their ethical questions, nobody ever questions Daniel's, and Daniel never seems to question his own. He dispassionately films everything, even when his subjects don't want him to. If there is an argument to be made against a documentarian, it would be against Daniel and not against Gilbert. For all his flaws (and he has many), Gilbert is just a guy who gets far too involved into a project and makes some very stupid decisions. Daniel was asked to record everything, and he does so no matter how inappropriate the situation, which makes him seem to be the person with the loosest morals.
If A Necessary Death was a documentary, it would be the most heartbreaking documentary I have ever seen (although I have yet to see Shoah). Even though Matt has every reason (and every right) to die, seeing him go through his final weeks is still very difficult, and the toll that it takes on Gilbert, Michael, and (especially) Valerie is obvious. When Matt eats his last meal, sells all of his things, says goodbye to his mother, these things are all confirmations of the end, and I had tears in my eyes on more than one occasion.
But depressing circumstances aren’t enough to make something like this work. It needs the performance to back it up. Matthew Tilley delivers. The fact that I’ve never seen him in a film before helps, but it’s an excellent performance on all counts. The entire time, I felt like I knew what he was feeling, whether he was speaking or not. There’s a very significant moment where Matt fires a gun, and even though his back is to the camera, his body language, minimal as it was, conveyed everything.
One of the fascinating things about A Necessary Death is that it shows some of the background behind documentaries. The explanation by the director of what he wants, the clap of the slate, the call to “action” of the subject. I always wondered how it worked, and this gave me a glimpse into the similarities between the production of a documentary and a narrative, or at least a mumblecore film.
But at the end of the day, A Necessary Death is not a documentary, and I’m very thankful for that. Matthew Tilley is still alive, and still working. As are the rest of the cast and crew. When the end of the film finally came, it was an honestly shocking moment. As surprised as I was, though, I felt like it was justified. I understood why it happened and why it had to happen. Quite frankly, it was necessary.
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