No matter how objective a documentarian tries to be, their bias lives in the editing, in the inclusion or exclusion of material. Henry Corra gets past all that. Corra calls his work “living cinema,” a filmmaking technique in which he becomes personally involved with his subjects, collaborating with them to create a film.
His most recent project, Farewell to Hollywood, is a collaboration with Regina Nicholson, a 17-year-old filmmaker battling cancer. Her goal is to make a film before she dies.
According to the film’s website, Corra met Reggie, “an obsessive cinephile who was battling a terminal illness,” at a film festival.
“What developed over nearly two years is a powerful friendship and poignant relationship between Reggie and me. I became her collaborator, friend and defender in her fight to find artistic and personal freedom.”
Freedom and liberation is certainly the film’s theme. Reggie’s parents at first seem over-protective and churlish. They’re concerned as any parents would be when their dying daughter starts hanging out with a much older man. Then the film gets dark.
As viewers, we can barely believe the audio: Reggie walks into her bedroom. Her mother asks if she’s wired with a mic. Reggie lies, “I’m not wired.”
“I wish you were dead,” her mother says.
When Reggie continues working on her film (and her friendship) with Corra, her parents disown her and stop paying her medical bills. This is a young woman who receives chemotherapy nearly every week and is on a host of different medications. Corra offers to care for her and cover all her medical needs — while continuing to make a film about the young filmmaker’s last days.
The uncomfortable tension in the film makes it an almost unbearable viewing experience. The sheer exposure of Farewell asks dark questions of privacy and ethics — questions that should spur critics, filmmakers, and audiences alike to discuss. Do we permit this filmmaking? Is Corra using Reggie — is he taking advantage of a dying girl? Can his perspective of events be trusted? He is the editor, after all.
In terms of death and suffering, what should we be allowed to see? How involved should filmmakers be in the making of a documentary, especially with so delicate a subject? An IndieWire reviewer said, “Moving or offensive? [Farewell to Hollywood is] the most paradoxical moviegoing experience of the year.”
By the end of the film, Reggie is alone with Corra, living in his house, bedridden. Returning to her parents’ objections, we can’t help but ask the obvious questions: What is the extent of his involvement, and why? Is he manipulating her? Exploiting her? Caring for her? Loving her? All of the above?
We will never see the countless hours of footage left out of the final cut or all the unrecorded conversations, but we at least see what young Reggie wanted: a film about a girl whose grace and intelligence surpassed her age, the story of a promising young life and a world ill-suited to keep it.