Filmmaking can be a way to process grief and preserve memories.
This post was written by Erec Brehmer.
In 2019, life was perfect. I had just moved in with my girlfriend, had finished film school, and my feature-length graduation film La Palma had just celebrated its premiere at a renowned German film festival. But in March, one day changed everything. On the way back from a skiing trip, my girlfriend Angi and I had a serious car accident. I survived, she didn't.
Still in the hospital, the first naive thought that kept me going was: "I'm a filmmaker. And when I talk about Angi, she will never really die."
Unable to comprehend the significance of my loss, I began to collect all the photos and video footage that existed of us. There were so many recordings, so many memories from everyday life. Nothing ought to be lost. And occasionally, I would watch the videos. After all, it was the only way to see and hear Angi again. To be happy with her inside those memories. To rediscover her in all those old footage. And so I slowly started to edit a cinematic sequence out of the material. A sequence in which I tried to capture Angi's essence, as impossible as it seemed.
Moreover, I began to document my grief, in the process of grieving itself, without distance and with the greatest intimacy possible. The alienation, the doubts, the heartbreaking pain. The cruelty of everyday life and all the survival strategies.
The only criteria for the narrative were whether something felt right or wrong. If it felt wrong, it was changed or cut out. A befriended musician provided me with music that Angi and I had heard shortly before she died. So, over time, these sequences became a film. A film I would have wished for in hospital, when I didn't know what was coming at me and how to do it: "grieving."
And even more, in the intuitive work of editing, I found a narrative that made sense and which helped me to better cope with my grief. After all, what is "storytelling" more than man's naive yet beautiful attempt to order this great chaos of life and give it a sense of meaning?
I didn't know what path the film would take, just as I didn't know what path my life would take. After Angi's death, all film projects had become unimportant, and all I wanted was my old life back. So I knew that I would never "let go" of Angi. That I would never want to "leave her behind" and "move on." How could I do that? As if I could end our love just like that.
And so in working on the film, I was also searching for what kind of relationship Angi and I could still have, now that we still love each other, but she is no longer there. A search for a new identity. And a love story, beyond death.
When I finished the first version of the film and showed it to various people, I experienced two reactions. First, many strangers came up to me and told me about their own experiences of loss and about traumas that had shaped them. A deep, honest dialogue began about a wide variety of topics that would otherwise have remained hidden. When I saw that there was a broad need to deal with grief, I finally decided to publish the film.
On the other hand, many filmmakers approached me and gave me helpful feedback. The desire to see myself and Angi treated as cinematic characters and to give the film a relevance beyond my personal fate through reflection and outside view. The advice to "interrogate my material more."
So I started editing the film all over again, creating a completely different film with the narrative I now accepted as my truth. Many new, dramaturgical sections emerged that subtly address issues and questions that many grieving people experience. The dramaturgy of the film authentically depicts my mourning process, which is not working through "stages of grief," but an alternation between "preserving the old" and "opening up to the new."
As in grief, in the beginning, the desire to preserve, the flashbacks to Angi and who we were, predominates in the film. But as the narration progresses, opening up gains the upper hand, until Angi doesn't appear at all in the last minutes of the film. And yet she is still palpable in every frame.
The finished film Who We Will Have Been had its premiere at the renowned DOK.fest Munich 2021. And soon, as incredible as it still sounds to me, it will also have its international premiere at the Hot Docs Documentary Festival in Toronto in May 2022, in the "International Spectrum" program. I am already incredibly excited and also nervous about how an international audience will react to our story.
Supported by numerous bereavement foundations, I will present the film in German cinemas in the summer of 2022 on a long cinema tour. There I want to engage with the audiences about grief, about Angi, and all the precious little moments of everyday life. The money raised by the film will be donated in its entirety.
I wish I never had to make this film. And yet I am glad and grateful that it exists. That it gives me the opportunity to revisit Angi from time to time. That it can help other people to feel less alone in their grief. And that through the film I can introduce the rest of the world to one of the most beautiful people I have ever met.