‘What is your world like? Are you satisfied in it? Are you safe in it? Are you happy?’ Thought-provoking questions, posed by Joanna to her son Janek, to the readers of her widely followed blog, and now to the viewers of this short Polish documentary directed by Aneta Kopacz. Largely consisting of footage of Joanna and family at their home or in its natural surroundings, the film presents moments from the last months of her life following a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.
We are not given any of the usual information meted out in documentaries about cancer sufferers – about the diagnosis, the progress of the disease, the kinds of treatment attempted. There is no timeframe, no ‘three months left to live’, while the usual ‘doctor’s prognosis’ scene has the dialogue cut. We don’t need it: Kopacz understands the difficulty of tackling such an intensely personal subject in explicit terms, and instead focuses on direct sensory experience and everyday routine: close-ups of Joanna stroking her son and husband, of nail varnish being applied, vegetables chopped, dishes washed.
The film is particularly poignant because the family’s rural life is so deceptively idyllic: they laze in the grass, go for walks, discuss plans to go mushroom hunting or kayaking. Birdsong is frequently audible in the background. But of course these seemingly pure moments are also heavy with foreboding. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal, who recently won praise for his distinctive visual approach in the critically acclaimed Ida (2013), creates stark images of the family alone against imposing natural backdrops that dominate the frame. Jan Kaczmarek (of Finding Neverland fame) provides a sparse accompanying score that bristles with a sense of imminence.
Though we witness many brief conversations between Joanna and her family, with subjects ranging from the mundane to the profound, the most compelling moments in the documentary are when the dialogue is cut entirely. In one particularly distressing scene, we look in from outside the house as the parents console a crying Janek. The director has realised that there is an intimacy here that cannot be breached, and respects rather than invades it – often filming from a distance, through a screen of foliage, or from doorways and windows.
In many respects, though, this film is as much about the young Janek as the dying Joanna. Heartbreakingly inquisitive and perceptive, he brightens the film’s bleakness just as he seems to give his mother hope in her final months. Towards the end of the film, she tells her husband: ‘The boy can ride a bike. That’s something at least’. People liked Joanna’s blog because it encouraged an unexpectedly optimistic and thoughtful approach to life. Similarly, this restrained documentary manages to show not only her brave departure from the world, but also how it feels to become a part of it.
Joanna was shown as part of the Open City Docs Fest 2014.