In a documentary about cancer patients, despair, courage, grace – and angels

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Farida Pasha’s new documentary Watch out for me is often difficult to watch. Was it that hard to do? The Milanese filmmaker spent nearly two years following the members of Can support, a Delhi nonprofit that works for free with cancer patients. Pasha ultimately chose three case studies attended by a doctor, a counselor and a nurse.

The deeply empathetic and enlightening documentary was shot in black and white by Lutz Konermann. The use of monochrome is one of the many stylistic choices Pacha has made to tackle a difficult and emotionally heartbreaking subject. Meherchand, Munni Devi and Hanif are all seriously ill. It is incumbent on the title angels, Maniamma R, Sini Kuriakose and Reena Sharma, to watch over them in the face of possible death, to prepare their families for the inevitable and to offer them advice on medication and any measures that alleviate their suffering.

Watch out for me will screen at the Los Angeles Indian Film Festival (May 20-27). The winner’s 49-year-old director My name is Salt, on the salt workers in Kutch, and Women with blue berets, about soldiers from a United Nations peacekeeping unit in civil war-ravaged Liberia, spoke with Scroll.in on the inspiration behind his new film and the challenges of dealing with a delicate subject.

Did “Watch Over Me” emerge from a personal space?
The film struck a chord with a certain age group of people who have had this experience or are going through it. I too had experienced something similar. I spent six years after film school caring for my mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and my father, who had a heart attack. I saw them degenerate overnight. I never imagined having to make a movie about it.

I was researching a documentary on rural health in India, but it didn’t work. During my research I read on CanSupport. I met the founder, Harmala Gupta. She understood what I wanted to do and said I should give her a written offer. We started filming in October 2017.

Watch Over Me (2020). Courtesy of Leafbird Films.

What guided you in choosing which case studies we see in the film?
We were following a few patients. I only used a fraction of what we shot. We selected these three during assembly. Among the qualities we were looking for was how comfortable they were with us. The crew also didn’t care to be filmed, they just went ahead and did what they had to do.

I was also looking for people who could listen to what patients had to say. For example, Hanif’s story is also about the bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome in order for him to get the drugs on which his life depends.

How did you film delicate situations – terminally ill patients surrounded by anxious family members?
We had a lot of talk on the set. We entered only after obtaining the consent of the families. Many families refused, while others said they did not want to continue after we had met them several times.

We filmed from the moment we walked in. The documentary testifies to the generosity of the people. I wonder, would I be comfortable with my parents being filmed? They might agree, but maybe I would have a problem.

It must have been emotionally difficult to attend the counseling sessions, to watch the patients struggle to breathe and communicate and hold on to hope.
It’s the hardest movie I’ve ever worked on. It was heartbreaking. As a documentary maker, you think you’re prepared for it, but you’re not.

It was very difficult to see people so sick every day. You had to constantly face the fact that you are mortal. It cost us psychologically, and then it also impacted the tape recorder and the editor.

I will never forget this experience. It has also been very enriching and has enriched my life a lot. You see the humanity of people so closely. You see so much attention and love.

Watch Over Me (2020). Courtesy of Leafbird Films.

Why did you choose to do “Watch Over Me” in black and white?
It wouldn’t have worked in color. It would have been too distracting to walk around on a brown flowered blanket or purple curtain. Your attention would have been drawn to models that were not important. Black and white is able to draw you to the heart of the film.

What discussions did you have with cinematographer Lutz Konermann about framing the characters and shooting them at home?
There were three constellations – members of the hospice team, patients and their families. There was a lot of talk between the two. We thought we would have a dual camera setup, but it looked awful.

I thought it was not to cover up the situation. Even in My name is Salt, we worked with a basic Sony camera. Also in this case, we didn’t want to have to change lenses in the middle of a shot. We knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time.

Either way, when you step into an atmosphere where there is so much distress and tension, you don’t have time to set up lights and stuff. We worked with available light or very basic light. There were three crew members, including the phonograph.

How did family members react to your presence?
The funny thing is, you’re not quiet, and that’s not even the point. Even in such situations, people will accept you for what you do. It’s a mystery how it goes. People don’t bother you once they let you in.

We had a quiet presence. But there was no notion here of being a fly on a wall. Lutz was moving all the time, for example. Sometimes we were flat against a wall, or sometimes we moved around the bed. In a single camera setup, you want to cover it all. We wanted people to talk and listen.

Watch Over Me (2020). Courtesy of Leafbird Films.

Although we have spent so much time with the CanSupport team members, we are not learning much about their backgrounds.
The choice was to stick to their professional life. We would meet them at their office, go with them, and then go our separate ways. We didn’t want to go home with them – where would the movie go after that? You would have a million more questions.

I didn’t want to step into their privacy. It is clear that they love what they are doing. This way you also get a feel for people. I never filmed the patients separately either, you only see them in the presence of the team.

The film is a classic observational documentary. I don’t work with people who I see being performative just because it looks good. Anytime I’ve tried to design anything for a movie you can see in the footage that it’s not genuine.

Was the documentary shown to the families of the patients?
I thought I would come to India and show them the movie, and then the coronavirus pandemic broke out. I didn’t want to just send families a link to a screener. I would like to be there for the screening.

Farida Pasha.

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