People often ask me what my favourite movie is. For a cinephile, a simple answer verges on the impossible. Ozu’s Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story, Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)? Chaplin’s premonitory Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)? Kaurismäki’s patina of nostalgia, Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past, Aki Kaurismäki, 2002)? Kieslowski’s Trois couleurs trilogy (Three Colors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-1994)? Claire Denis’ more recent postcolonial indictment White Material (2009)? Emir Kusturica’s delirious Underground (1995)? Or perhaps Errol Morris’ genre-bending The Thin Blue Line (1988)? Cinematic taste is a shape-shifting beast, almost like a state of being. Cinema is a parasitic art: it infiltrates your tissues and your memories, transforming who you are and even the essence of who you were. However, if the question were to be rephrased to “What is the film that has affected you the most?” or “What is the film that most resembles the way in which you experience the world?”, my answer is quite straightforward: Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997). No other film has stayed with me as long as Egoyan’s, like the taste of Proust’s proverbial madeleine or the very last kiss from a long-lost lover. The Sweet Hereafter lingers like a scar or a melancholic song that just refuses to go away years after you first heard it.
We can intellectualise film all we want, theorise about the symbolic and discursive power of sound and image, but at the end our emotional responses to cinematic art, how it shakes us to our core, supersedes academic or critical gymnastics. Cinematic art is as much about politics and aesthetics as it is about affect, what Eugenie Brinkema has poetically defined in her work on film and sensation as that which is there to “disrupt, interrupt, reinsert, demand, provoke, insist on, remind of, agitate for: the body, sensation, movement, flesh and skin and nerves, the visceral, stressing pains, feral frenzies, always rubbing against: what undoes, what unsettles, that thing I cannot name.”1 There are times in which our reaction to certain films can not be fully theorised or even understood. When our own elusive past is dug out at the sight of a particular image, plot or dialogue, film renders us vulnerable and naked, raw.
For many moviegoers such as myself, transcendental personal experiences with film are a way of marking important events in our own life stories. Some people have photo albums, I collect emotions triggered by films. As José van Dijck argues when discussing the relationship between media and memory, remembering “is necessarily an activity inscribed in time, often fostered by an urgency to save a sense of present as the future’s past. Cultural memory links the past to the present and future, but as an activity taking place in the present, the past is continuously modified and revised, even as it continues to shape the future.” 2 Personal experiences with film have a fundamental role in the shaping of both personal and collective memory. As Kuhn et al. argue, films “may reference or commemorate past, often traumatic, events or bring to mind ones that have been forgotten or repressed; and they may even actively construct cultural memory.”3 For years, the lingering memory of The Sweet Hereafter has shaped my relationship with my own vulnerability.
This type of relationship between memory and media is what Iranian film scholar Hamid Naficy reflects on in the essay “Theorizing ‘Third World’ film spectatorship”. As a departing point for theorising the cultural intricacies of audience reception, Naficy narrates the impact that Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soviet war film Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying, 1957), had on him: “over four decades later, when I read over the plot summary, I am struck by that image of the cranes flying in the sky, the cranes Tatyana looked at in the end in order to remember her lost love, Boris, killed in the war. Now, when I remember that image, I am reminded of my own loss – my country, lost to exile. Such is the power of symmetry, memory!”4
I watched The Sweet Hereafter when I was 20 years old in an almost empty theatre in a shopping mall in Mexico City’s suburbs, where I grew up. It was the 11pm screening and it was a confusing time in my life, having just experienced the tragic death of a good friend, Francisco. As I sat there in the black hole that was that multiplex theatre, Egoyan’s film filled my senses, numbed my brain and sucked me into a spiral of nostalgic beauty. In the year of James Cameron’s kitsch spectacle Titanic, The Sweet Hereafter was a welcome oddity,5 an “Oscar-worthy” film that actually demanded active participation from the audience.
I left the theatre as one leaves a funeral, knowing that normalcy will take hold of life again, but at the same time nothing will ever be the same. Something in The Sweet Hereafter, how it deals with the inevitability of loss, unearthed memories from deep inside me, recollections that had left an unattended scar that the film unsettled in unexpected ways. As William Thomas wrote in Empire: “The subject is as painful as it is possible to imagine, but the treatment, while never preachy or affected, is humane, insightful and extremely moving.” 6 Having spent my childhood summers in Canada, the wide landscapes captured by Egoyan reminded me of that eerie quality of Canada’s geography, where there is nowhere to run. It wasn’t until 2001 when I watched Nanni Moretti’s La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room) that I saw mourning represented again in such an honest and brutal way on the screen (its use of Brian Eno’s “By this river” is one of the best examples of popular music as diegetic sound in film, 7 a scene that eventually leads me back to The Sweet Hereafter as both films have become part of my emotional foundation, defined by inexplicable loss).
The Sweet Hereafter, based on Russell Banks’ novel (originally set in Upstate New York), is a kaleidoscope of private tragedies framed by an unspeakable event. In a remote Canadian town, a school bus carrying most of the children suffers an accident. The bus steers off the road and lands on a frozen lake. The ice gives in. The children drown, stuck in a bright yellow collective coffin. The movie follows a lawyer who is trying to make a case for a class action lawsuit and visits each grieving home. The lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), is facing his own personal tribulations, as his estranged daughter, Zoe, suffers through drug addiction and occasionally works in porn. Egoyan equates Stephens’ own sense of isolation with the sense of loss experienced by the parents. Egoyan dexterously conveys ideas and emotional states through cinematic images that range from the mythical to the banal, with hints to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the German folk character who lures the children away from a town. When the film did the festival circuit in 1997, Janet Maslin wrote for The New York Times: “Making this material very much his own, the filmmaker creates schematic, intuitive images that hauntingly crystallize the characters’ situations. When first seen, for instance, Mitchell Stephens is trapped in a car wash, receiving a cellular phone call from his own lost child, a vituperative drug addict named Zoe. Stuck in a car being deluged with water, is he being washed clean or washed away?”8 Today, every time I drive into a carwash my thoughts go directly to Stephens.
The key to Egoyan’s film is that enigmatic, impossible word: “hereafter”. A word that encapsulates time and space and implies a future that is slippery. For how can anyone imagine a future after the death of a child, the incarnation of the future itself? The word “hereafter” has a soothing but final ring to it. There will be light but only after a long period of darkness. Through its intersecting plotlines, the film deals with the crumbling of the nuclear family when tragedy strikes, and with the ways in which role models shift. 9 In flashbacks that merge seamlessly with the main narrative, we experience a key event in Stephens’ life. We see him lying in bed with his partner and their daughter Zoe, then barely a toddler. The image is simple and pure: the nuclear family, skin to skin in a state of perfect, if momentary, bliss. Egoyan describes it in the opening lines of the film’s script:
INT. SUMMER COTTAGE – DAY
A young family together in bed. It is a bright summer morning. Father, mother, and a three year old girl are still asleep. They are naked. A light breeze drifts into the room. The scene is serene and softly suspended.
Head credits appear over this idyllic image. The little girl turns in her sleep. A dog barks outside.
Later in the film, nature finds a way to disrupt this serenity. Zoe is bitten by a spider and the worried parents drive her to hospital. The instructions from the medical team are clear: if her airways close, they will have to cut through her throat. Stephens had full control of her daughter’s body then, a control he now lacks. Through organising a class action lawsuit for the grieving parents, Stephens wants to regain control over matters of life and death, at least vicariously. Three years after Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction complicated the use of time in mainstream American cinema, 11 Egoyan accomplished a far more complex feat. The Sweet Hereafter’s temporal landscapes are intricate, with overlapping storylines that make up a sort of emotional rhizome. We see a father, Billy Ansel, following the school bus on his pick-up truck and waving to his twin children seconds before the bus sinks into the freezing water. We then see the father, a widower, having an affair in a motel with the mother of another dead child. Their bodies merge in silent, funeral copulation. A survivor of the tragedy, a teenager played by Sarah Polley, sits on a wheelchair and plans a subtle revenge on her incestuous father. The bus driver, a woman called Dolores, survives but is imprisoned in a purgatory of guilt. A couple who lost their adopted child, Bear, a Native Canadian, tries to find solace in acceptance but experience inevitable anger.
The accident itself is not shown until the last act of the film. As a spectator, you know that it will happen, that destiny’s cards have been drawn, but something almost primeval takes hold of you and makes you want to stop it. The bus sinks slowly, as in slow motion. One of the CGI artists working in the film explains Egoyan’s creative approach to the climactic scene in the description of a YouTube clip: “we were able to work towards a gracefulness of movement in keeping with the film’s sombre tone. The action seems to happen almost in slo-mo, and is seen from a great distance. Many people have remarked how such a low-key approach would probably never be taken in an American movie. Yet, it is these very qualities which make the shot so effective and memorable.”12 The way in which Egoyan films the accident is a mirror of the movie’s structure. The intimate and the epic come face to face. We see Billy following the bus in what we assume is a daily ritual. Then he watches the bus lose control and ride into the ice, like a mosquito trapped in a spider web. As spectators, we are paralysed like Billy, who watches it all from his windshield, a sort of movie screen itself, as Anne Friedberg has pointed out when stating that “the visuality of driving is the visuality of the windshield, operating as a framing device.”13 Our empathy with Billy comes from our shared inability to act in the face of tragedy. Billy becomes a spectator of his own cursed fate: the screen of the windshield preventing him from acting. Cinema is a masochist art that sometimes digs deep into our shared pain as perishing and powerless beings.
As I watched The Sweet Hereafter in that horrid, sterile multiplex I relived a foundational experience from my own childhood, the first time that I encountered the sudden death of a child. Like most middle-class families in Mexico City, my parents hired a nanny for me and my sister while they went off to work as academics. Olegaria was born in Oaxaca, a state that has historically been the site of indigenous struggle and postcolonial angst.14 Just like many women born and raised in the abandoned Mexican countryside, Olegaria worked in the country’s capital and sent money to her town, where her sister was taking care of Olegaria’s daughter, Rocío. Olegaria’s partner had been killed in a bar fight a year back, his body sliced up with a machete. Every month, Olegaria sent most of her earnings to her sister so Rocío would be dressed and fed.
Only she wasn’t.
Extreme poverty led Olegaria’s sister to do the unspeakable: she used the money to care for her own children and left Rocío, who was only three or four, in a state of near starvation. I was barely seven or eight years old but it all came back to me while watching The Sweet Hereafter a decade later. The phone call asking Olegaria to fetch her daughter, Olegaria packing for a 20-hour bus ride, the ring at the door three days later and my mother rushing to help, the toddler’s skin covered in fungus, rotting. And then my father calling my grandmother, who was a doctor. My grandmother phoning a public hospital begging for a bed. And Rocío’s cry, deep and pointy like ice cracking under the yellow school bus. I heard it all from the darkness of my bedroom, a blackness as deep as a movie theatre’s. Watching the film I was that child again, confined to my bed, stripped of any agency while another child was dying a few metres away. I was Stephens unable to move in the car wash, I was the shocked father watching the bus do a macabre dance on the ice before halting and disappearing, bringing silence back into the world.
Rocío died a day later. My father broke the news to me. It was the first time I saw him sobbing, unable to control the tears and the shaking. My father, vulnerable and confused. He then described the tiny coffin being descended into the ground and a party of three grieving. The coffin now laid forever in the sweet, cruel hereafter. As I grew up in Mexico City I would watch the homeless children that live in the city’s sewers and beg for money. I would get angry, I would feel powerless, I would ask myself who would be the next one of those kids to die or to watch their own offspring go.
Life continued. I went back to Catholic school the next day and stared blankly at a blood-covered Christ in the chapel. Something in me was different. I now knew the world can be ruthless, that the primitive rhythm of death dictates the tempo of our existence. Egoyan’s yellow bus, full of busy children who are unknowingly about to perish, struck close to home, and a bodily memory awoke in me, an affective storm that paralysed me. At the same time, though, the film provided an aesthetic experience that verged on the sublime. Egoyan finds peace in death. The snowy landscape, immaculate and immense, make the characters look minuscule, the yellow bus a mere speck in the wheel of time. However, while revisiting The Sweet Hereafter and remembering Olegaria’s story to write this essay I was overcome by an extra affective layer, anger. Like Stephens, I believe someone, somewhere is responsible for the sudden end of a child’s life. My mind went back to Catholic school, to my younger self looking at Christ’s punctured side, at the stream of blood flowing from his feet, and asking a simple question: “Why on Earth?”.
It is the same question I would ask ten years later, a few months before watching The Sweet Hereafter. My friend Francisco was barely 19 when he died. He was tall, a gentle guitar-playing giant, a Holden Caulfield sort of guy. He was in a good place. He had ended a long relationship and was starting a new one with a girl who was sweet and cheerful and younger than him. I was chatting with Francisco on a Saturday afternoon. Being graphic novel fans, we were discussing Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. He told me he had to go offline to pick up his girlfriend. I was so happy for him. I got a call from a mutual friend three or four hours later. She was at hospital, where Francisco had been taken after surviving a car crash a mere half hour after I had chatted to him online. He had lost control of his car on a curve and smashed into a concrete wall. He got out of the car apparently unscathed. He got home, sat down, and his body started to shut down. Heart, lung, liver, kidney. A symphony of organs bursting inside his cavities. Francisco silently bleeding to death. An ambulance. An inexperienced doctor slicing Francisco open and not knowing what to do. Another ambulance and another waiting room. Family and friends pretending to read magazines, pretending that Francisco would be alright, pretending that this wasn’t an anticipated funeral. Dozens of us went into a room to donate blood. We called healthy friends in the middle of the night, asking for blood, like a hoard of generous vampires. A river of life flowing towards what was in reality certain death.
Francisco died the following morning. I replayed our last conversation hundreds of times, keeping it to myself, the unwanted guardian of Francisco’s last words. The same question, like a chisel sculpting ice: “Why on Earth?”. Francisco, another child torn apart by the deadly marriage of metal and flesh.
Everything is a blur. Timelines overlap, like in Egoyan’s film. The funeral house was full of university friends, many of them encountering death for the first time. There was a metal crucifix with a bloodless silver Jesus. Francisco’s mother’s wail was sudden, like ice cracking. As happens whenever a baby comes into the world, I am sure Francisco’s mother imagined his firstborn’s life like a movie. The first steps, first words, family holidays, adolescent heartbreak, girlfriends, graduation ceremony, wedding, grandchildren and then Francisco saying “I love you, mamá” by her deathbed. But it was not to be. The movie would suddenly come to a halt, the reel burning thanks to a clumsy projectionist. A truncated plot. Inconclusiveness is painful, parents are not supposed to bury their children.
It wasn’t until years later that I made peace with Rocío’s and Francisco’s deaths. It all happened on a Greyhound bus ride across Ontario, Canada. It had to happen that way. The irony is not lost. As I looked out the window and let my gaze get lost in the wild forest, I remembered Egoyan’s film. The pain came back to me. While I was thinking of how aleatory life and death are, the “Why them and not me?”, the vehicle came to a sudden halt. The driver got off and called someone on his phone. A few passengers stepped out. I did the same. There it was. A white-tailed deer, elegant and slim, lay on the pavement gasping for air. A reckless driver must have hit it and left it for dead. Its side was punctured and a stream of blood gushed out of the wound, like crimson flows out of Christ’s side in a baroque crucifix. It was getting dark and the woods produced a multitude of sounds. We were uninvited guests in nature’s perfect order. Life and death, the changing of the seasons, inevitable. A spontaneous funeral party.
We watched the deer die and enter the gates of the sweet hereafter.
- Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), p. xii ↩
- José Van Dijck, “Mediated memories: personal cultural memory as object of cultural analysis,” Continuum 18, no. 2 (2004): p. 264 ↩
- Annette Kuhn, Daniel Biltereyst, and Philippe Meers, “Memories of cinemagoing and film experience: An introduction,” Memory Studies 10 (2017): p. 5 ↩
- Hamid Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ film spectatorship” in Rethinking third cinema Wimal Dissanayake and Anthony Guneratne, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), p. 130. ↩
- Interestingly, Titanic was deemed a manipulative film by Egoyan himself. See: Atom Egoyan, “In Other Words: Poetic Licence and the Incarnation of History,” University of Toronto Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2004): 886-905. ↩
- William Thomas, “The Sweet Hereafter Review,” Empire, 1 January 2000, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/sweet-hereafter/review/ ↩
- The scene is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqGoXYoh7O8 ↩
- Janet Maslin, “FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW; A Town Bereft, Limping Into the Future,” The New York Times, October 3 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/03/movies/film-festival-review-a-town-bereft-limping-into-the-future.html ↩
- Katherine L. Weese, “Family Stories: Gender and Discourse in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter,” Narrative 10, no. 1 (2002): 69-90. ↩
- Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter,” Movie script, http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/Unprocessed/PDFscripts/The%2520Sweet%2520Hereafter.pdf ↩
- Charles Ramirez Berg, “A taxonomy of alternative plots in recent films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino effect’,” Film Criticism 31, no. 1/2 (2006): 5-61. ↩
- Bramptonian, “The Sweet Hereafter – Bus Crash,” YouTube, November 15 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uf43Jp-mvAU ↩
- Anne Friedberg, “Urban mobility and cinematic visuality: the screens of Los Angeles-endless cinema or private telematics,” Journal of visual culture 1, no. 2 (2002): p. 184 ↩
- Michael Kearney, “Transnational Oaxacan indigenous identity: The case of Mixtecs and Zapotecs,” Identities Global Studies in Culture and Power 7, no. 2 (2000): 173-195. ↩