An image from First Cousin Once Removed, a documentary by Alan Berliner.

I just stepped out of a screening of First Cousin Once Removed, a film that’s showing at the New York Film Festival next week. I figure I’d better write about it now, because I don’t want to forget it. That’s a joke — the film, directed by Alan Berliner (Wide Awake, Nobody’s Business, The Sweetest Sound), is about his relation, Edward Honig, who suffers from Alzheimer’s — but it’s laced with sincerity, because the documentary is deeply affecting, and it hit home for me in an immediate, emotional way that I want to relay here.

That in itself — the delicate, fleeting nature of communicating a feeling — is one of the many subjects of Berliner’s film, which ought to resonate in a deeply personal way to anyone who has struggled to remember a lost love, a precious memory, or who has had a family member who experienced dementia in any way. In other words, the film could speak to just about anyone.

And yet, that is not to say that the film is for everyone. It isn’t pretty. It’s a discomfiting film, for many of the obvious reasons. Looking at infirmity in a close up — nose hairs, stained sweaters and all — is not pretty. And tracing the vicissitudes of dementia in poetic fashion (Honig was a poet, translator of poets and longtime professor at Brown University) requires a fair amount of patience from an audience. But I think that Berliner, who clearly aspired to creating a sort of visual poetry in First Cousin, achieves it.

Berliner is known for making personal, reflective films that deconstruct everything from his family name to his inability to sleep at night. He’s used to digging deep into his psyche, and, here, he tries to dissect the deteriorating mind of his cousin.

Berliner asks Honig, “Who are you, anyway? What’s it like to be you?”

These are obviously very existential questions, and when you ask a poet who’s losing his mind, then you’re going to go down a rabbit hole. As Berliner contemplates a mind that is going blank, he tells Honig’s personal history, which is also far from a walk in the park. There’s been tragedy inflicted upon and by Honig, and Berliner doesn’t shy away from either.

After the screening, Berliner came on stage and spoke about how, with the Baby Boom generation having just turned 65 last year, there will be an “avalanche of memory loss heading our way.”

I’m not sure how literal he was being, but I don’t think this film is going to be the Inconvenient Truth of senility. But it will be deeply meaningful for a lot of people who are willing to look at the inevitably sad end of it all. HBO is releasing the film in late 2013, but tickets are still available for purchase for next week’s NYFF screenings.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen