A Necessary Death (2008, Director: Daniel Stamm): This was the last of the screeners I was sent for films showing at SXSW this year, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking forward to watching it. In fact, I’d been putting it off for weeks. Here’s why: the concept is that a graduating film student chooses as his thesis project to create a documentary following a suicidal person from their initial decision to the final act of taking their own life. I don’t think it will spoil the film for you if I tell you that this isn’t a real documentary.
Instead, director Daniel Stamm films in a documentary style as his brash student director Gilbert gathers his crew and starts sorting through responses to the audacious ad he’s placed in the newspaper: “Suicidal individual wanted for documentary. Project will follow individual from first preparations to final act.” I don’t want to say too much more about plot, but I was consistently impressed and surprised by how unscripted and natural the film felt. Even after I knew it wasn’t “real” I was still tense as “the end” approached. Great performances highlight a smart script that explores many of the ethical issues that surround documentary filmmaking. Does a filmmaker have the right to manipulate his subject? How about befriending him? Is the film more important than the relationships formed? Many documentarians struggle with these issues only after beginning what they think is a straightforward film, and Stamm perfectly captures that sense of losing control of the story.
Stamm can’t avoid having one of the film’s conceits break down early. He’s supposed to be a friend of documentarian Gilbert, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to film a documentary about the making of a documentary. Nevertheless, this conceit is essential to portray Gilbert’s character in the fullest way. I certainly didn’t feel cheated or fooled by the faux-doc approach. In fact, I was relieved that Gilbert’s audacious experiment wasn’t real. It didn’t lessen the impact of the film, and I’m sure I’ll take many of the ideas explored here into my coverage of the Hot Docs festival, which begins here in Toronto this week.