We can’t grieve what we can’t remember

A couple sit together, looking pensive.
Augusto and Paulina in The Eternal Memory. | Sundance Institute

Two blistering, beautiful new docs show the brutality of repressing our collective memories.

There’s a liminal space just adjacent to grief. It’s where you live when anticipating loss that hasn’t yet arrived — the loved one with a terminal diagnosis, the crisis looming on the horizon. It’s the space you occupy when standing beside someone who grieves, trying to absorb a bit of their pain.

Chronicling the intimate emotion of that space through a camera requires extraordinary sensitivity, the ability to observe without intruding and participate without invading. That’s what makes two new nonfiction films so remarkable: The Eternal Memory, directed by Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent), and A Still Small Voice, from Luke Lorentzen (Midnight Family). And still more remarkable is an insight they both arrive at: that memory is crucial for navigating this kind of grief, and that this has implications that go far beyond our individual lives.

A Still Small Voice — one of the best documentaries I expect to see this year — follows a cohort of residents in Mount Sinai Hospital’s spiritual care department, all of whom are training to offer nonsectarian support to patients and families going through the worst experiences of their lives. The film mostly follows Mati, a resident passionately committed to her work. She’s grappling with the ways her work, and her doubts about spiritual matters, are woven into her mental and physical health.

A woman’s face, up close. She looks thoughtful.
Sundance Institute
Mati, the central subject of A Still Small Voice.

It’s hard for me to fully describe the experience of watching A Still Small Voice. Mati speaks to cancer patients, bereaved parents, and grieving families who feel guilt for not being able to save their loved ones. In one extraordinary scene, Mati — raised Jewish, now uncertain about the divine entirely — has to baptize a twin baby born stillborn to a pair of devoutly Christian parents. And when she comes home, she more or less collapses.

The grace that flows off the screen is gutting, and as Mati’s professional life starts to suffer from her stress, we begin to understand what the film is truly about. The film takes its name from two sources. A patient tells Mati that she knew to leave an abusive relationship in her past because of a still small voice inside. But that patient is almost certainly quoting a passage in the Bible in which God speaks to the prophet Elijah not in a whirlwind or a fire or a storm, as the prophet expects, but in a whisper. Clarity comes from unexpected sources. And the memories the cohort struggle with go a long way toward informing how they care for patients in the future.

As Mati absorbs the emotional state of those she ministers to, it’s not some abstract exercise or intellectual work; it is physical and even painful. But the reasons her patients need support are, themselves, physical. And the patients subtly reveal themselves as the reason for the film. The lessons they offer to Mati seem perhaps even more valuable than what she is able to offer to them. Near the end of the film, an older woman tells Mati of the many times she’s received diagnoses and treatments, and yet, she says, she is still here. She tells Mati that she believes God is keeping her here because God isn’t finished with her yet — that her memory of the past is what sustains her hope for the future.

It’s a sentiment echoed throughout the film. Mati’s own doubts stem from memory, too: her family’s suffering extending back to the Holocaust, and her recent experience losing her father very suddenly. Others in the cohort speak of anger from being robbed of memories by Covid-related restrictions that barred them from spending time with dying loved ones. The past informs the present, and is borne in everyone’s bodies. That collective trauma haunts A Still Small Voice.

A day or two after I watched A Still Small Voice, I saw The Eternal Memory and felt an instant shiver of recognition. Director Maite Alberdi’s last film, The Mole Agent, explored life and love in a residential community for the elderly; for this film, she revisits with exquisite poignance the twinned love and grief of a long love. At the film’s center is Augusto, a Chilean cultural historian, and his wife, Paulina. They’ve been together 25 years, and eight years before the film’s beginning, Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Now his memory is really starting to slip. Paulina is his faithful caretaker, and most of the movie simply observes them in everyday life as Augusto slowly becomes less and less consistently aware of his surroundings and of Paulina’s existence.

A couple cuddle on a couch; he reads from a book.
Sundance Institute
Augusto and Paulina in The Eternal Memory.

Over the course of several years, Alberdi (and the couple themselves, once the pandemic hits) films intimate moments between them. Talking about their lives and Augusto’s children. Paulina comforting Augusto when his grasp on reality disappears. Making jokes together. Remembering their younger selves.

It’s all especially heartrending because Augusto spent his career writing books and filming TV programs. He worked to preserve history that the powerful at times wished to suppress or make disappear entirely. The Eternal Memory connects his personal struggle to retain his past with the country’s amnesia. “Without memory, we wander, confused,” he says in archival footage near the end of the film.

It was hard not to weep while watching. The couple’s love is so strong and bittersweet, yes — but as in A Still Small Voice, memory is the key to grappling with the grief of the present. It was a troubling realization as I was reading about attempts to rescind national memory in my own country, suppressing books and eliminating learning opportunities that flesh out the failings of the past so we can care for one another better in the future. If memory is so vital for navigating present grief, then what are we doing — what are we saying about ourselves — when we move to remove memories, to eliminate that which might give us a way to live now?

The intimacy with which Lorentzen and Alberdi film and craft their subjects’ experiences into films we watch belies both deep empathy and an instinctive understanding that their stories are not only particular but also universal. What we lose with our memories, in our grief, is the ability to move into our futures. We can only care for each other by telling those stories over and over again. Our sorrow won’t be solved that way. But we can learn to live, and pass those memories on.

A Still Small Voice and The Eternal Memory premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023. The Eternal Memory was acquired by MTV Documentary Films and won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the festival. A Still Small Voice won the US Documentary Directing Prize at the festival and is awaiting distribution.

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