Cinéma du Réel 2023 review: Up the River with Acid (Harald Hutter)

“It isn’t often that we encounter films that are simultaneously incredibly personal and deeply resonant on a universal level, but through the unforgettable imagery and profound honesty of this film, Hutter achieves it in this powerful and profound examination of the most precious human connections.”

The art of the documentary entails many varying styles, each one driven by a different intention, which makes it difficult to view non-fiction filmmaking as a genre, when in reality it consists of an endless array of directorial and artistic approaches. One of the more challenging methods of capturing reality on film comes in the form of those documentaries that are created through the process of trying to archive a human life – not necessarily exploring an individual’s entire journey from cradle to grave (which usually falls under biographical documentary), but rather those that offer fragments of their everyday existence. These are very often increasingly personal films, and can usually be quite challenging based on their tendency to reflect some of the more challenging aspects of life. Up the River with Acid is an extraordinary film that is nestled comfortably in this style of filmmaking, with Harald Hutter telling a very personal story about Horst, a former professor of Political Science, and (perhaps more importantly) his father. Diagnosed with dementia some time previously, Horst navigates his life with increasing difficulty, trying to make sense of these new changes, while struggling to maintain his mental stability, which is gradually eroding. This film depicts the haunting obstacles that the director’s father faces, capturing the heartbreaking process in which a rote life becomes increasingly disordered and difficult, delivered in a simple but extremely touching examination of the volatility of life and the value in cherishing every moment.

Dementia is not an easy subject to discuss, but it has become a topic that many have actively attempted to explore, if only to bring awareness to the struggles faced by those afflicted with these awful conditions. What used to be viewed as mere senility and elderly eccentricity has become the source of many thoughtful and engaging films, and Up the River with Acid makes invaluable contributions to this steadily growing body of work that explores the subject with tact and honesty, affording sufferers the dignity they deserve. Hutter had a very personal connection with this subject, by virtue of the fact that his own father was afflicted with dementia, so it is only logical that his choice to make a film on the subject would be a nuanced, earnest depiction of the disease. The film is structured around two days in the life of Horst, with the director’s camera recording his daily activities, as well as a few moments in which he musters enough energy to discuss his condition, or what he can acknowledge of it, which occur in meaningful but increasingly rare moments of lucidity. The film is a voyeuristic glimpse into the life of a man slowly losing his grasp on reality, but desperately doing whatever possible to maintain his sanity, aware and fearful of what will happen to him once he is on the other side of this illness entirely. Even beyond being made by the subject’s son, Up the River with Acid is a deeply sympathetic work, and it never trivializes Horst’s struggles or draws on our pity in a way that feels inauthentic or forced. Instead, it paints a vibrant portrait of a feisty and charismatic man who has become one of the many people diagnosed with this disease, but who continues to live a fruitful life. This documentary portrays the aching beauty of repetition and routine, something that will only continue to erode the further this illness progresses.

However, a cursory glance at Hutter’s previous work shows that he is not a filmmaker who condenses his films to a single subject, and that they are often focused on more than just the themes presented on the surface. The fact that this is about the director’s father is not just an incidental concept that explains how he was given such close access to a dementia patient. Over the course of the film, we discover that this is as much about living with dementia as it is about family and human connection. The film has the appearance of a home movie, both visually and in how Hutter captures the quiet and intimate moments in the life of his family. Interspersed between scenes that show his father’s struggles with his disease are poetic interludes, in which the director’s mother Franciney Prévost (and Horst’s wife of many decades) recounts her inner feelings and insecurities, delivered in voiceover and her native French, a language Horst admittedly doesn’t speak well, almost as if she is trying to keep her true sadness a secret from the man to whom she has devoted her life. This choice highlights the multicultural nature of the family, and adds a level of complexity to the film, showing the lengths to which her love for her husband extends as she watches him suffer from an incurable disease. These poetic testimonials conceal the sadness and heartbreak that comes with seeing a loved one fade away, as well as demonstrating how we all express our feelings about someone’s impending demise differently. Franciney uses her striking odes to reflect on her relationship with her husband and their shared past, while the director makes use of his camera to capture the last vestiges of his father’s life, documenting fragments that may not mean much in isolation, but when placed together create a vivid and heart-wrenching portrait of a son who idolizes his father, and is simply hoping to record everything he can before he is fully enveloped by this illness.

Up the River with Acid is the kind of film in which the deafening silences say more than spoken words – and there are many quiet interludes in which the film draws on the incredible impact of stillness to convey deeply moving statements on the nature of existence. It is unlikely we will ever see any work of art that fully encapsulates the experience of living with dementia, and those of us who are fortunate enough to not have this devastating disease can likely never imagine the true scope of what its victims have to endure. However, what we have been given on occasion are films such as this, made by or based around the experiences of those who had loved ones who were diagnosed with this illness, their own relationship with dementia being profoundly heartbreaking, since they slowly watched someone they care about gradually slip away. Hutter is an immensely gifted filmmaker, and his artistic integrity and ability to capture every detail of the subjects he chooses to explore make him a truly empathetic filmmaker. However, Up the River with Acid rarely feels like a film he made for anyone other than himself and his family, since it primarily plays out as a series of intimate moments in their lives, an attempt to capture whatever they can of their beloved father and husband before he is entirely lost. The fact that he allowed us access to these visual memories is incredible, since the intimacy and honesty with which he pieces this film together is extraordinary. Hutter crafts a quiet, beautiful tribute to his father, shaping seemingly inconsequential moments to reflect his position as both a son and a filmmaker, in that order. It isn’t often that we encounter films that are simultaneously incredibly personal and deeply resonant on a universal level, but through the unforgettable imagery and profound honesty of this film, Hutter achieves it in this powerful and profound examination of the most precious human connections.