Daniel Stamm's A Necessary Death is sure to be one of the most talked about films at SXSW this year. At least I hope it is, because I'm dying to have a discussion or two about it. Here's my endorsement, first, so that I might influence someone to see the film and in turn have someone to chat with about it: Anyone who considers him or herself a fan of non-fiction cinema needs to see A Necessary Death. I should point out, of course, that this is not exactly a documentary itself. It is a narrative feature structured like a documentary (I hate to call serious faux docs mockumentaries, so I won't), but it was indeed written and it was indeed cast and it was indeed acted out. But if you love non-fiction and hate fiction, don't let that keep you from A Necessary Death. An actual documentary couldn't say as much about the genre as this film does.
A Necessary Death is about the making of a non-fiction student film and is formatted as a sort of behind-the-scenes document of the documentary process (Stamm appears as himself as the behind-the-scenes director). The film-within-the-film is the thesis project of Gilbert (GJ Echternkamp), an uncompromising student who has the controversial idea to follow the last days of a suicidal man or woman up to and including the final act. Joining him as crew are Michael (Michael Traynor) and Valerie (Valerie Hurt), who reluctantly signs on after enormous hesitation.
The trio immediately finds an eager subject (Matt Tilley) and things go up and down from there. Gilbert fights with his school over the merits and morals of the project. An exploitive news show offers to buy the finished product if the subject's death can be guaranteed (anything else would be 'Hollywood bullshit', according to Gilbert). Valerie's reluctance grows into regret, which in turn grows into complete unwillingness to continue. At certain points the behind-the-scenes doc (aka the diegetic incarnation of A Necessary Death) seems destined to become another film about an unfinished film, a la Lost in La Mancha.
Obviously, I won't divulge what ultimately happens. Yet it's the path to the ending that's of interest, anyway. Think of any ethical or sociological or structural question that's ever been asked in regards to documentary filmmaking and A Necessary Death probably goes there. Is it right to film a death if it's self-inflicted? Does documentary encourage or otherwise affect its subject? Is it proper to treat documentary as a means of aide or rescue? Is the subject compromised or otherwise complicated when a filmmaker gets personally involved? How far involved is too involved? These are some of the challenges of non-fiction cinema that are indirectly addressed and contemplated throughout the film.
Overall, though, A Necessary Death makes us think about taboo subjects and what is or isn't untouchable. At one point the film invites a comparison between Gilbert's project and some documentaries about abortion. Someone wonders whether the film might be construed as pro-suicide. Gil points out that it's in fact pro-choice. Later, someone says of Gilbert: 'He's not being cold; he's being a documentarian.'