Farida Pacha’s new documentary Watch Over Me is often hard to watch. Was it just as hard to make? The Milan-based filmmaker spent close to two years following members of CanSupport, a non-profit in Delhi that works with cancer patients for free. Pacha eventually picked three case studies that were attended to by a doctor, a counsellor and a nurse.
The deeply empathetic and illuminating documentary has been shot in black and white by Lutz Konermann. The use of monochrome is one of many stylistic choices Pacha made in tackling a difficult, emotionally wrenching subject. Meherchand, Munni Devi and Hanif are all seriously ill. It falls upon the angels of the title, Maniamma R, Sini Kuriakose and Reena Sharma, to watch over them as they confront possible death, prepare their families for the inevitable, and offer advice on medication and any measures that alleviate their suffering.
Watch Over Me will be screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (May 20-27). The 49-year-old director of the award-winning My Name is Salt, about salt workers in Kutch, and The Women in Blue Berets, about soldiers with a United Nations peacekeeping unit in civil war-riven Liberia, spoke to Scroll.in about the inspiration behind her new film and the challenges of handling a tricky subject.
Did ‘Watch Over Me’ emerge from a personal space?
The film has struck a chord with a certain age group of people who have had this experience or are going through it. I too had gone through something similar. I spent six years after film school caring for my mother, who had Parkinson’s, and my father, who was a heart patient. I saw them degenerate from one day to the next. I never imagined having to make a film on this.
I was researching a documentary on rural health in India, but it somehow didn’t work out. Over the course of my research, I read about CanSupport. I met the founder, Harmala Gupta. She understood what I wanted to do and said I should give her a written proposal. We started shooting in October 2017.
What guided you in picking the case studies we see in the film?
We were following a few patients. I have used only a fraction of what we shot. We selected these three during the edit. Among the qualities we were looking for was how comfortable they were with us. The team too wasn’t bothered about being filmed, they went ahead and did what they had to do.
I was also looking for people who could listen to what the patients had to say. For instance, the story of Hanif is also about the bureaucratic hurdles that need to be crossed in order for him to get the medicine on which his life depends.
How did you go about filming delicate situations – terminally ill patients surrounded by anxious family members?
We had a lot of discussions about the filming. We went in only after we had obtained the consent of the families. Many families refused, while others said they didn’t want to continue after we had met them a couple of times.
We filmed from the time we entered. The documentary is a testament to how generous people can be. I wonder, would I be comfortable with my parents being filmed? They might be fine with it, but maybe I would have a problem.
It must have been emotionally hard to sit in on the counselling sessions, watch patients struggle to breathe and communicate and hold on to hope.
This is the hardest film I have ever worked on. It has been wrenching. As a documentary filmmaker, you think you are prepared for it, but you are not.
It was very hard to see such sick people every day. One had to constantly confront the fact that you are mortal. It took a psychological toll on us, and then it took a toll on the sound recordist and the editor too.
I won’t ever forget this experience. It was also very rewarding and very much enriched my life. You see the humanity of people at such close quarters. You see so much care and love.
Why did you choose to make ‘Watch Over Me’ in black and white?
It would not have worked in colour. It would have been too distracting to have your eye wander to a blanket with brown flowers or a purple curtain. Your attention would have been drawn to patterns that were not important. Black and white is able to draw you into the core of the film.
What discussions did you have with cinematographer Lutz Konermann about framing the characters and shooting them in their homes?
There were three constellations – the palliative care team members, the patients and their families. There was a lot of talking happening across and between. We thought we would have a two-camera set-up, but it looked horrible.
I figured that it wasn’t about covering the situation. Even in My Name is Salt, we worked with a basic Sony camera. In this case too, we didn’t want to have to change lenses in the middle of a shot. We knew we wouldn’t have much time.
In any case, when you are going into an atmosphere where there is so much distress and tension, you don’t have the time to set up lights and stuff. We worked with available light or a very basic light. There were three crew members, including the sound recordist.
How did the family members react to your presence?
The funny thing is that you are not inconspicuous, and that isn’t even the point. Even in such situations, people accept you for what you are doing. It’s a mystery how it happens. People don’t bother you once they have let you in.
We had a quiet presence. But there was no notion here about being a fly on a wall. Lutz was moving all the time, for instance. Sometimes, we would be flat up against a wall, or sometimes move around the bed. In a one-camera set-up, you want to cover everything. We wanted a sense of people talking and listening.
Although we spent equal amounts of time with the CanSupport team members, we don’t learn much about their backstories.
The choice was to stick to their working lives. We would meet them at their office, set out with them, and then part ways. We didn’t want to go home with them – where would the film go after that? You would have a million other questions.
I didn’t want to get into their private lives. It’s clear that they love what they do. That way, you get a sense of the people too. I never filmed the patients separately either, you see them only in the presence of the team.
The film is a classic observational documentary. I don’t work with people I can see are performative just because it looks good. Whenever I have tried to engineer anything for any film, you can see in the footage that it isn’t authentic.
Has the documentary been shown to the families of the patients?
I thought I would come to India and show them the film and then the coronavirus pandemic broke out. I didn’t just want to send the families a link to a screener. I would like to be there for the screening.