“Once in a blue moon a festival competition film comes along that’s a masterpiece, so flawless it’s inconceivable that it won’t take top prize. This year at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, that film was Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed… and it did indeed nab the VPRO IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary…. Fittingly, my reaction towards Berliner’s breathtaking portrait of his mentor and relative, the acclaimed poet and translator Edwin Honig, as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, mirrors my take on IDFA itself. This crème de la crème fest, that in the past quarter century has grown to become the biggest doc event in the world, is simply in a league of its own.”
“Not since seeing Willem de Kooning’s work that was painted while the artist himself was suffering from Alzheimer’s have I felt another artist get this close to such an elusive subject. In Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed the various stages of his cousin’s decline (rebirth?) are so well edited – including not just recent interviews, but archival photos and Honig’s own poems – that a whole picture of a fragmented state emerges. At once heartbreaking and absolutely exhilarating, Berliner’s doc takes us where few have gone before, inside the mind of a man with end-stage dementia, when life becomes as simple and as profound as a poem.”
“Heartbreaking, haunting and unexpectedly heartening, "First Cousin Once Removed" is an uncommonly moving documentary portrait of a mind in disarray. Its unblinking look at a once-formidable intelligence descending into the abyss of Alzheimer’s succeeds because of a fusion of subject and filmmaker that is transcendent.”
“That filmmaker would be Alan Berliner, whose decades of intensely personal essay-type films such as "Wide Awake," "Nobody's Business" and "Intimate Stranger" have been the perfect preparation for this artful, poetic piece of work.”
“… a fascinatingly fractured glimpse into a disengaged mind and a biopic-in-reverse of its subject, quite unlike any documentary seen before…. Berliner is a past master of montage, here endlessly manipulating black-and-white images from Honig’s irretrievable past. And since, it is disclosed, the director’s father and many of his male relatives suffered from the same disease as Honig, Berliner might well be exploring his own future."
“Archive footage, photographs and written materials from the academic's golden years provide context for the one-on-one interviews which form the bulk of the picture's brisk running-time -- the latter presented as chronologically jumbled fragments with results that are often poignantly and piercingly ironic.”
“The ethics of so publicly displaying an often-hapless individual in this way are touched upon early on, when Edwin's sister Lila speaks disapprovingly of Berliner filming the octogenarian in his "compromised" state. But there's no mistaking the conscientiousness with which Berliner goes about the task of doing justice to Edwin's fascinatingly complex, sometimes prickly character, and he always steers a course that avoids the potential pitfalls of exploitation or tactlessness.”
“Watching Edwin stumbling among the ruins of comprehension and expression, sometimes in a fury of frustration, is a humbling and often harrowing experience. But it's a worthwhile one, as Berliner crafts a quietly touching and illuminating memento mori from the steady dying of an intellectual light.”
"Winner of the top prize at Amsterdam’s IDFA documentary festival, First Cousin Once Removed is as profound and personal a film as you might imagine.”
“Documentarian Alan Berliner has made a career out of using film to pick apart what makes us who we are. First Cousin Once Removed is a magnificent addition to his oeuvre. It’s a haunting, masterfully made, and achingly melancholy portrait of the end of life.”
“In Mr. Berliner’s moving and mysterious documentary, the poet and translator Edwin Honig picks his way through his mind and memories in the falling shadow of Alzheimer’s. It’s the latest of Mr. Berliner’s dogged investigations into identity and family, and his strongest work yet, elevated by the presence of another artist in Mr. Honig, playfully insightful and eloquent even as his powers wane.”
"Into the oblivion of advanced age, he freestyles poetry and offers frank answers or blank verbal shrugs. But Mr. Berliner, like a painter working at different times of day, also shows Mr. Honig speechless, making birdlike noises or simply drumming on the arms of his chair."
“Mr. Berliner’s son Eli also appears, playing with a delighted Mr. Honig, and one can sense a certain urgency in the filmmaker’s compassion — a desire to draw out his cousin that approaches need. It’s an urge to communicate, even commune, that one can readily sympathize with, and Mr. Berliner’s film bravely brings us to the edge of language and experience.”
“Some docs are journalism. Some are history. Some are entertainment. Very few aspire to poetry -- the Oscar-shortlisted “First Cousin, Once Removed” by Alan Berliner being a notable exception."
First Cousin… is a film that broadens the definition of what nonfiction filmmaking can mean, while also expanding its capacity for creative expression… it celebrates the life of an artist in the only way that does it justice, by being art…. One of Berliner’s magic acts is making his movie both dispiriting and exhilarating -- the former because of the obvious cruelty of disease, age and mortality; the latter because the director, freed from the constraints of conventional narrative, can alchemize pain into something close to visual euphoria."
First Cousin is by a documentarian’s documentarian; Berliner has almost always made films that in theory would seem impossible to make and turn out to be impossible to resist…. He uses the bits of wisdom he collected from Honig – and his silences – the way Rauschenberg used car tires, or Picasso used the features of the human face. There is always a logic, and sense of recognition, as well as new angles, and perspectives.”
"Just as Berliner's father overtook "Nobody's Business" with his wisecracking responses to the filmmaker's questions, Honig eventually subsumes the perspective of "First Cousin Once Removed," and Berliner allows his elder's crumbling subjectivity to dominate. A final credit chillingly tests the audience's own mental capacity, broadening the movie's perspective so that nobody can escape its clutches without contemplating the cold fate that awaits us all. It's the biggest idea Berliner has engaged to date -- and for the same reason, it's also his crowning achievement."