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Sensory ethnography and disability in “Entire Days Together”

Luise Donschen’s new avant-garde short is streaming exclusively on MUBI starting November 4.

Luise Donschen’s new avant-garde short is streaming exclusively on MUBI starting November 4.

The avant-garde provides both distinct possibilities and problems as a mode for documentary film. A certain level of narrative obfuscation allows for different, more experientially-oriented ways to present reality, but may also avoid necessary context these films need to work as informative pieces. Especially for underrepresented social groups that do not benefit from the same semiotic shorthand of more well-represented subjects, experimental nonfiction runs the risk of under-serving their true stories. Seeking to bridge these gaps between form and content, director Luise Donschen’s new short film Entire Days Together (2019) sees an online premieres today, November 4, on MUBI.

Working with a more subdued version of the docufiction of her debut feature Casanova Gene (2018), Donschen has moved into a more ethnographic style for her newest short. The film follows Miriam (Miriam Stoney), a teenager recently “cured” of her epilepsy, who attends a live-in school for students with special needs in Germany. As the students prepare for their semester-end festivities and the ensuing break, Miriam has to simultaneously process the news of her medical breakthrough and the fact that she now will no longer be able to stay in the community where she came of age.

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What defines Donschen’s short is less about its coming-of-age narrative than the dire stakes below its surface. Growing up for a teenager with a disability is not just a matter of letting go of the nostalgic comforts of childhood; for some, schools provide the most safety and enrichment they will experience in a lifetime. Community integration, while an important end in its own right, can lead easily to isolation for people who require support beyond the bare minimum many societies offer adults with disabilities. When Miriam is told she can now enter a trade school to get an equivalency certificate, she dreads leaving, knowing life outside her enclave will not provide the level of fulfillment she’s found there. While the film touches upon more common adolescent anxieties on top of this, its main conflict remains the layer of existential dissonance that lurks below– if someone finds identity in a community, and that community is based in part around shared abilities and needs, what happens when they outgrow those needs?

As a snapshot of a time and place, Entire Days Together is not interested in explicating what comes before or after for these students. The film, maybe admirably, feels little burden of representation for teenagers with disabilities, who are otherwise tragically underrepresented in cinema. It works mostly in sensory immersion, at points operating in a similar register to the films from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. (Wisconsin Film Festival goers will remember some of the lab’s previous work, including The Iron Ministry and Leviathan.) Everyday images and tasks are rendered in close-up, dis-aggregated into their finer sensory components, with Donschen basking in the simple pleasures of fine motor skills. These qualities tie the film in nicely with MUBI’s “Unusual Subjects” documentary series, a program which has in the past included films about slime mold and The New York Timesobituary desk.

If the film leaves something to be desired as a more thorough exploration of its community, its commitment to visual abstraction is still deeply sympathetic. Donschen focuses on minutiae because the finer points of experience do have a radical newness in Miriam’s reality. Off-kilter framing allows for these altered points of sensory focus– disembodied hands pick and peel at food; a line of accessible vehicles consume the screen so that a looping effect occurs as each leaves and another appears in its place. When Miriam attends a swimming lesson, the camera holds a still birds-eye view of the pool as she floats nearly invisibly at the corner of the frame as her limbs poke in and out. Modulating the image of Dustin Hoffman’s pool-assisted ennui in The Graduate (1967), Donschen literally marginalizes Miriam in the frame as the subject in transition. She has caught up to life just in time for it to move past her. In these In these moments, when the immediate visual pleasures of the film align with a more formalist rigor, Entire Days Together becomes something special as a piece of activist cinema that can make important statements by simply allowing its subjects to exist on screen.

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