What made Montreal filmmaker Noura Kevorkian think shooting a silent film with background music was best for “23 Kilometres,” a documentary that had audiences rising from their seats to applaud after the world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival? For starters, the film’s main subject, Kevorkian’s late father, could not speak during production due to late-stage Parkinson’s disease. So, to convey her father’s innermost thoughts, she decided to use the languages of drama and documentary to make a lyrical film. That meant, instead of using an actor to provide a voice-over, Kevorkian conceived a novel way to communicate on behalf of her father. She calls it “silent dialogue.” Her father’s thoughts appear as text, scrolling silently across the screen. There’s no fancy graphics or effects as Hollywood uses to portray computer processes in movies like “War Games,” “Skyfall” or “The Fifth Estate.” Instead, Kevorkian’s powerful, impressionistic documentary, shot in many ways as if it’s a drama, captures both the physical and psychological experiences of an Armenian man dying from Parkinson’s disease in his home of Lebanon.
CanScreen caught up with Kevorkian at the prestigious Czech Republic film festival to talk about the challenge of making a film about a dying father who cannot speak, but who can still cast his mind back to lost youth and glory.
“23 Kilometres” is a drama-documentary. It’s not a docu-drama; it’s an experimental essay film about your father while he suffered from late-stage Parkinson’s disease. And yet you shot the film like a drama. Why did you choose to make essentially a silent film, with music?
Most people know about Parkinson’s as causing shivers of the body. I was more interested in his psychological state because he (Barkev Kevorkian) was a brilliant man. He built machines and robots during the Lebanese civil war. He helped so many people. I wanted that side of him to be shown.
Because your father was frail, you developed the film like a drama, planning shot by shot, to save time and physical exertion for its main subject?
For him to walk from his bedroom to the kitchen literally took two minutes. It was very hard for him to take part in the film. He was a proud man. He was accomplished. He was so strong. And it was embarrassing for him for the world to see him as an old man, a shaking man. But I told him, “Dad, I will show you beautifully. I will show you as truly my dad.” So he took part, and wanted people to know what it’s like to live with Parkinson’s.
He also took part because his daughter was making the film.
Of course, he wasn’t going to let another director portray his life. He wanted people to know about Parkinson’s and to hopefully help find a cure.
Tell us about the logistics of film production.
The cinematographer moved into the family house and we would set up the lighting and wait for my father to wake up and walk, and wait for him to sleep and we waited for him to take his medication. I really wanted the audience to experience what it feels like to have Parkinson’s, how slow you walk and what it’s like to go in and out of hallucinations, thinking you’re young and beautiful and sexy and able to do everything. And then you realize suddenly you’re dying in a year.
The irony of “23 Kilometres” is, for all your father’s frailty, he was once young, handsome and energetic, and you wanted to show that side of him to the audience.
If he built something, it would last forever. Only nuclear war would destroy it, we would tell each other. And, as kids, we always think our parents are going to live forever and are invincible. But when the realization hits that they are not, it’s really hard. Even when my dad was so sick, I had an idea that he was going to die. But my sister was so shocked on the day of his death. She could never imagine he would die. She said, “I love him and could never think he will die.” So we’re never prepared for that.
You wanted to convey your father’s thoughts, but he couldn’t speak. So you found a novel way for him to communicate.
I’m very proud of the film because the silence in the film makes it. It’s so important. That’s why I had to decide to use this new cinematic device. I called it “silent dialogue.” I wanted to express what he’s feeling. Initially, he was going to write. And he couldn’t write. So I decided to write for him, and to convey his inner thoughts. In cinema, the actor is thinking to himself and his inner thoughts are conveyed through his words heard off-screen. But how to convey that for a character who’s silent? That means it has to be text. That text I put on the screen is stuck to the image, and can never be removed from the image. So when I was explaining it to the funders and editor, they said, “What is this? It’s text.” I said, “No, it’s not text. It’s silent dialogue. This is the actor’s voice and you can’t take it out.” I had to assure funders that I could make this film silent. It’s going to stick because it works.
Instead of the audience hearing what an actor is saying, they will read text because your father was mute. So the film is, in essence, 80 minutes of silence overlaid with music.
I was told initially by one funder, why not hire an actor to say his lines. I said, “No, this film is about him being silent, about him feeling lonely and imprisoned in his body.” He wants to drive, but his hands are shaking. So he can’t. How to experience that? Everything in the film is designed to get you inside his life.
A documentary film, by nature, has no ending until the director finds one. In “23 Kilometres,” did you know the end of the film would be your father’s death?
That was the hardest part of the film, finding the ending. And the ending is obvious because I know he’s going to die. But for me, him dying was not the end. After all he had gone through – he lost 20 years of his life because of the civil war, and another 20 years was lost because of the Parkinson’s. So I wanted my dad to die the way I wanted my dad to die. I wanted to give him life (eternally). I wanted to send him off to somewhere he always wanted to go – without giving away the ending! It’s very powerful. And I still can’t watch it, even after I edited this film for six months.
That must have been difficult, editing and seeing your father in footage, and knowing he’s dead and you’re grieving?
It was very difficult. This film took five years to make because, we shot the film and, of course, my daughter is in the film. She was 1 year old. And she plays me. And we started editing, as we had a rough cut when my dad died. And I just couldn’t look at the footage. And a month later, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
But everything is okay with her? (At this point, Kevorkian falls silent, her eyes brimming with tears.)
She was in therapy for two years. She’s okay. We were delayed … Sorry. (I insist she needn’t apologize and to take her time to collect herself.) … Because he died and is in the film and she was sick, I couldn’t edit the film. I thought, looking at her, I can’t lose her. And the two years we were in chemotherapy, she was a baby. By the time she finished and was better, three years had passed. And I started (the edit) and was going through post-traumatic stress. The fact that this film finished is a miracle, because I’m quite stubborn and determined and thought I owe it to my dad and want to give him a proper death and set him free.
“The film is an homage to my dad and it’s an homage to your dad, and all of the dads. It makes us think about, when we die, what will be the last moments of our life.”
Now, after living with “23 Kilometres” deep in your head for so long, you’ve screened your film in Karlovy Vary, to audiences who are only now getting to know your father. How does that feel?
I wish the camera was close up on the audience’s face. Half the audience left after the film without hearing the Q&A, which made me sad. Even the jury left. But those that stayed – their faces – everyone needed to take a breath. It’s very powerful. I thought to myself, I’ve done it. It’s every director’s goal to make an audience feel something. And they felt it. One lady was crying. Another young woman hugged me and cried and was shaking, and said she’d looked at an old man and saw a young and handsome man. And I cried because suddenly I realized my film is over. I’ve been working on it for so long, and now my dad’s story is out.
And it’s part of your father’s legacy and our memories of him.
The film is an homage to my dad and it’s an homage to your dad, and all of the dads. It makes us think about, when we die, what will be the last moments of our life. What montage will play in our heads when we dying, and what our kids will think of us. People felt that, and I thought, that’s good.