Filmmakers Make a Vibrant Film Out of One of Life’s Darkest Passages

#23:  Declaration of War (2013)/French
Director:  Valerie Donzelli

declaration of war posterHow do you make a buoyant, funny, semi-musical about a child being diagnosed with a brain tumor? How to you tell the truth about how hard, how frightening, how grueling it must be for parents to deal with the diagnosis and treatment, without producing a movie that is too weepy or sentimental? Maybe it helps if you’ve lived it, or at least so it would seem from Declaration of War. Valerie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm co-wrote and co-star n this film based on their own story, and Donzelli directs, and it’s a remarkably clear eyed depiction not only of parenting a sick child but of navigating the medical system.

Romeo and Juliette meet at a party and fall quickly for each other. They fall into parenthood almost as quickly, and soon find themselves fretting over a colicky baby boy, Adam. After a bumpy start – and with the assistance of a no-nonsense pediatrician (Béatrice de Staël) – Romeo and Juliette settle happily into their life as a family. Things go sideways, though, when Adam is diagnosed with a brain tumor at 18 months. This section of the film – the initial suspicions that something is not right, the doctor’s visits, the tests – communicates well the rattling anxiety that parents feel when they sense that something bad is coming for their child. Juliette argues with the hospital staff over sleeping arrangements, much to Romeo’s embarrassment; but fighting for control over the small things is all that Juliette knows to do.

Juliette argues with the hospital staff over sleeping arrangements, much to Romeo’s embarrassment; but fighting for control over the small things is all that Juliette knows to do.

Soon Adam is scheduled for neurosurgey with the quiet, confident Dr. Sainte-Rose (Frédéric Pierrot). The night before the surgery Romeo and Juliette lie in bed saying their fears out loud, moving from the plausible (that Adam may be left blind) to the ridiculous (that he may wind up a “right wing nutcase”), then they collapse in laughter. It’s a beautiful little scene of bravery in the face of death.

But Adam does not die. The surgery is a success, but not a complete victory. Chemo and radiation are ahead, years of medical treatment that may – or may not – keep Adam alive. There are no quick fixes in Declaration of War. Fighting the war to to save their son is a years-long engagement, just as it was in reality for Donzelli and Elkaïm after their son Gabriel was diagnosed with cancer. Romeo and Juliette are supported by their families and friends, and after spending long days at the hospital comforting and playing with Adam they go for runs or to parties with friends, trying to retain their identities as something other than the parents of a sick child.

Declaration of War is a realistic depiction of the banality of long days and nights spent in hospitals, of the awkwardness of dealing with pity from friends and strangers alike, of the way that years of living in crisis grinds away at relationships. And yet, Adam survives (something we know from the movie’s first scene). The price that Romeo and Juliette pay for fighting this war is clearly worth it as they take their 8 year old son from Dr. Sainte-Rose’s office, officially “cancer free”. You can see the joy and relief in their faces. The fact that 8 year old Adam is played by Gabriel Elkaïm, Donzelli and Elkaïm’s real life son and a cancer survivor, frees Declaration of War from any charge of a too-easy happy ending. The happy, if complicated, ending is the truth. The wars that parents wage to save their children are hell, but sometimes, thank God, they win.

Bonus Pick: Jesus Camp (2006)
Directors:  Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

jesus camp posterWhen does raising children in the faith become simply indoctrination – or worse, brainwashing? It’s not an abstract question for someone who was raised in the Christian faith has raised her children in that same faith; that is, someone like me. The documentary Jesus Camp follows Becky Fisher, as she leads a Kids on Fire camp which filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady see as dangerous indoctrination – at a minimum. I’m inclined to agree with them, and found Jesus Camp’s depiction of the spiritual and emotional manipulation of children to be very disturbing. Fisher’s vision of the kingdom of God is also explicitly Republican, and in funny-if-it-weren’t-true scene encourages the children to bless a life size cutout of then-president George W. Bush.