Revered Latvian documentary maker Herz Frank in 2002 made an extraordinary film about himself titled Flashback. After 40 years spent making more than 20 award-winning films about other people's lives, for the first time he turned the camera on himself. The result is a poetic, powerful and penetrating visual journey for viewers.
The film first presents sharp black-and-white footage from Frank's 1978 film Ten Minutes Older, which was shot by cameraman Juris Podnieks in one take at a puppet theater.
For 10 uninterrupted minutes, the lens looks into the face of a little boy, seeking the depths of the human soul as reflected in his tremulous face. From this fascinating picture, the story gradually unfolds. The deep, slow monologue of the director tells about the big changes of his life -- his wife's death and his heart surgery.
"I have never supported the philosophy that a man can come to know himself only at a fatal margin -- like facing death. And then, I found myself in a similar situation. The door to the new film was opened to me by the White Angel; the Black Angel was hiding behind it. I was on the verge of giving up everything. But the challenge of documentary filmmaking was stronger than me," says Frank in the film.
As part of the reflection on his life and himself, Frank had his photographer shoot the entire process of his heart surgery.
But he does not do so in a sensational way. Like poetry in images, Frank inter-splices his black-and-white old films while musing about life and death, love and destiny, and then edits in the colorful reality scenes of himself in the hospital going under the knife.
In the movie he also talks about his 1989 film Once There Were Seven Simeons, a film about the famous family jazz ensemble from Irkutsk and their wild attempt to flee the USSR for the West by hijacking a plane, and their tragic ending.
There are also flashbacks from his 1987 film The Last Judgment, a film shot in a prison death chamber about a convict sentenced to death for murder. In the film, Frank opens a discussion on the morality of capital punishment.
Behind the camera, when making those acclaimed films in the past, Frank was a strong man, thinking philosophically and intending to change the world. But lying in the operating room, his chest is cut open, exposing his heart pumping weakly in his chest. The audience sees the helpless man, with death fleeting in front of him in the film's most dramatic and poignant scene.
At this point, Frank offers his own note about documentary and exposing people's lives. "I have always doubted if we, documentary filmmakers, have the right to expose other people's lives? I was doubtful, still I went on filming."
In Frank's own words, Flashback is a confessional in film. The depth of the thinking and the sincere honesty presented in film has made it go beyond a self-indulging journal of an older man's glorious past.
It is, as he says, like a free flight. He shows in the film that what takes place before is not quite as important as one might think.
Film festival notes:
What: The 4th Taiwan International Documentary Festival
When: until Friday
Where: Showtime Cinema (欣欣精華影城), 247 Linsen N Rd, Taipei (台北市林森北路247號).
Spot-Taipei Film House (光點台北), 18 Zhongshan N Rd, Sec 2, Taipei (台北市中山北路二段18號).
Shih-ming Hall of Taiwan Cement Building (台泥大樓士敏廳), 113 Zhongshan N Rd, Sec 2, Taipei (台北市中山北路二段113號).