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Roadtrip In A Nursing-Home-On-Wheels

Fanny Bräuning’s documentary The Journey – A Story of Love has just screened at the 14th Tartu Love Film Festival. It is a life-affirming roadmovie about the director’s father and mother, who’s paralyzed from the neck down.

‘I don’t like ambigous situations. But this is clear. There was no other option for me to have given up my career as a photographer to take care of your mother. I couldn’t have done both or only half-heartedly.’ This is the answer of filmmaker Fanny Bräuning’s father to her question whether he doesn’t miss photography.

Half-heartedly is indeed not in the vocabulary of Niggi. Annette, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, woke up from a coma twenty year ago, paralyzed. Then, Niggi decided to build a custom campervan for them to travel around in. He has made it his life’s mission to be the keeper of both of their livelihoods. In Bräuning’s newest film, The Journey, she joins her parents on a trip to Southern Europe in their nursing-home-on-wheels. We spoke to the Swiss filmmaker about little moments of love and joy, her parents’ special way of life and the challenges she encountered while filming their story. 

Why did you think people need to see a film about your parents?

Growing up, it was normal for me that my parents lived the way they did. We always traveled a lot as a family and when they were younger, my parents traveled as far as Azerbadzjaan in a van. Right now they are in Scotland.

When I moved to Berlin and had a kid, they would come to visit us from Switzerland in their custom-built campervan. They camped outside of our house, in the streets. As no handicapped hotel is equiped enough for them. People started to remark how special it was, that my mother, who was by then bound to a wheelchair, traveled this far and slept outside in the van with my dad. That’s when it slowly dawned on me that, indeed, it was something unique and possibly a great subject for a film.

What did your parents think about you filming them so intimately? 

It was not hard to convince them to make the film. I asked them over the phone. My mother said yes immediately. I think maybe they also understand where I’m coming from, being artists themselves. They understand the appeal of going on this journey with them. Of course during filming and editing, this also made for some different perspectives on what should be portrayed. My film is mostly about the psychology of a intimate relationship and the interactions between my parents. My father, who is very practical, would’ve instead loved if I had given more attention to the technical solutions he built into the van.

Also: my father is very happy with the audience laughing, but not with them crying. He doesn’t want people to feel pity for them. 

The way your mother can express herself and the activties they can undertake together are limited by her bodily functions. Did this pose any specific challenges during filming?

My cameraman was worried that it would get boring, always being inside the van. But for my parents, traveling is all about the surprising things that happen around them. I like to compare it to a treasure hunt. Once they get back from a trip, they will tell us for example how they parked their van in a seemingly quiet parking lot at night, only to wake up in the middle of busy market the next morning. How someone sweeped the streets around their van all night. Or how new landscapes appear behind their windows. To assure that enough things would happen, I wanted to make sure that we filmed them traveling through the country side as well as the city.

The fact that my mother has a limited capacity to express herself actually became a great aspect of the film. We had to focus on the details and really try to capture the messages that she transmits. Not only through language, but through looks and other noticable small behaviours. We used a lot of panoramic shots, where the camera moves from my mother to my father and back, to show how they react to eachother.  

What would you like the audience to take away from the film?

Of course I wanted to include a few themes in the film. Like the myths that every couple has of them becoming a couple and how this still plays out in the present. There’s also the theme of dependency versus independency and giving up something for someone else, like my father gave up his photography to take care of my mother.

But something that I learned myself during the making of this film, is that she also still takes care of him in a way and compromises for his enjoyment. There’s the scene where my father goes out making pictures of the mountains and my mother is quite annoyed that he is taking so long. But then she says: at least he’s making pictures so he must not feel too bad.

Your mother once became a member of Exit, the organization which helps with assisted suicide in Switzerland. After she woke up from her coma she resigned her membership. Can you elaborate on this?

My mother knew at quite a young age already that she had multiple sclerosis. She didn’t tell us, the kids, about her membership at Exit until later.
What’s interesting about my mother, is that she always said that she would not want to live if she would not be able to walk herself. Then when she couldn’t walk; she said she wouldn’t want to live if she couldn’t use her hands. Her perspective kept shifting, until she resigned from Exit all together. I think this show that we really don’t know what will make life worth living in the future, until we arrive at that point.

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