As Albert Einstein so keenly said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” It is within this thematic vein of elevating the everyday and bringing life to the nondescript that Elan Bogarín and Jonathan Bogarín find success in their genre-bending documentary. Is it over the top? At times. But the occasional flaw or pretense is quickly forgiven thanks to the emotional accessibility of its content.
The film follows Elan and Jonathan in the wake of their grandmother’s death and faced with a situation that is both dreadful and relatable to all: what to do with the deceased’s belongings.
To catalogue and sort what solely remains of a lost loved one seems to be an impossible task, a teetering balance between ascetic and hoarder, not knowing if, within the contents of our rented dumpsters, lie our loved one’s prized possessions.
Why do we obsessively search and catalogue their belongings, opening up our still-fresh wounds of grief and re-awakening the pain we so carefully stuffed down? It is because we know that the things left behind are all that remain, that within every Band-Aid box stuffed with pennies, within every expired can of gefilte fish, within every aged dress, is the memory of the person we dearly miss.
Elan and Jonathan have described the film as a “magical-realism documentary,” an appropriate epithet, as “306 Hollywood” finds significance in the smallest corners of existence, blending together the real and fantastic. The Bogaríns, half-Venezuelan through their father’s side, join the esteemed ranks of other Latin-American magical-realists: Marquez, Allende and Borges, who crafted their legacies on this same blending of the real and enchanted.
The film’s home-video footage of Annette Ontell, Elan and Jonathan’s grandmother, is brimming with a charming authenticity that is so exemplary of an affectionate matriarch that it is nearly impossible for audience members to not project their own personal stories in her place. Elan was blessed with the foresight to record and interview her grandmother the last 10 years of her life and, within these interviews, a strange meshing occurs. Behind a camera, Elan and Jonathan become different people, their grandmother now a subject; this distancing in a way opens up so many unknown frontiers as they are able to delve into realms unexplored by the conventions of familial relationships.
What works so well for the tapes is that they blend together the intimate and the grand. The very act of recording Annette elevates her along with the others whose stories are uplifted by the medium. However, Jonathan, Elan and Annette’s relationship transcends the limitations of subject and viewer thanks to their personal ties and intimacy. It is the showcasing of this cherished relationship that persuades audience members to suspend any inkling of disbelief, allowing them to appreciate the subjective worth of these seemingly minute memories and objects.
As Elan says in the film, “After someone dies, their personal objects take on their personhood.” Our view is remolded; the supposed junk left after Annette’s passing is now brimming with the essence of the person we thought was gone. In an attempt to categorize and understand the depth of Annette’s passing, various experts are brought into the film to share their own perceived notions of what remains behind.
Unparalleled was the inclusion of fashion conservator Nicole Bloomfield, who analyzed the dresses Annette had had made for herself. Annette had been a fashion designer all her life. In one endearing interview, she was blanketed by her own dresses, saying, “I have made a thousand dresses in my life and each one has brought a woman happiness.”
Bloomfield, was brought in to analyze those very dresses that had brought Annette such happiness, remarking on each one’s originality. The autopsied analysis of each minute detail, a small mustard stain in the lower left, remnants of sweat beneath the armpits, help bring to life the emptied dresses. The stitching and fabric that Annette so tirelessly worked on and loved is brought back to life in a choreographed dance as models fill out each of Annette’s creations.
Another standout in the film was the interview with physicist Alan Lightman, who brought comfort to death, describing how, when his father died, his atoms remained in this world. Even if he was able to gather up all of the atoms, it would still not be his father, yet he finds comfort and meaning in knowing that something remains. This is the journey Elan and Jonathan take, gathering up all that remains of Annette—not creating her exactly, but something still to find comfort in.
The film serves as a reminder for us to reflect on the unrecognized wonders in our own lives, and one that succeeds in showing the importance of what our loved ones leave behind and the memories that still exist.