When you open up the DVD for A Necessary Death, you won’t find an insert breaking down chapter titles. Instead, you’ll find a letter from the filmmakers discussing the conception and development of the film, which took 8 years to finish. The letter mentions that they first screened the film at a film festival in Kosovo, and members of the audience had near-psychotic episodes, needing to be dragged from the theater and consoled, while others cursed the filmmakers and called them murderers. However, the letter assures us that the film is fiction, and that everyone associated with the film is alive and well.
The concept is simple. A Necessary Death is a fake documentary about suicide. The director, Gilbert (G. J. Echtenkamp) along with his classmates (Michael Traynor, Daniel Stamm, and Valerie Hurt) decide to make a documentary chronically the final days of someone who wants to end their own life. After a variety of interviews, they meet Matt (Matthew Tilley), a thirty-something British man with a terminal brain tumor who wants to end his life before being subjected to the immeasurably painful death he will go through eventually.
This is a unique film experience. Obviously there have been fake documentaries before, but they’re usually done as comedies; satires making a comment about the world. This is the first dramatic, serious fake documentary I’ve ever seen, and it’s genuinely amazing to watch. It’s like any other great film – the plot unfolds in a believable way, the characters are all well-developed and they change in believable ways, and there’s a genuine emotional resonance in the audience with what’s going on. The documentary style simply takes these basic filmmaking elements and presents them in a unique way.
I feel like I could talk about the various elements of this film for a very long time. It’s all good storytelling technique; the way the documentary team is put under a time pressure of getting their thesis film finished, the added stakes of not having the support of their university because the concept of the film is so controversial, and the relationships that develop between the characters (specifically, the love triangle between Gilbert, Matt, and Valerie). All of these elements are brilliantly conceived and executed, and while I could bore you by analyzing the various elements at work here, I’d rather just say that this is one of the best and most important films I’ve ever seen, and everyone should see it.
It’s hard not to examine this film as a real documentary, because it feels completely real. Writer/Director Daniel Stamm (who appears in the film as the documentary’s cameraman) proves himself to be a master of adhering to the conventions of the documentary style. I find myself getting as invested in these characters as that first audience in Kosovo did. I keep having to stop and tell myself that I’m falling in love with a fictional character, who’s not actually dying. I was curious throughout my viewing of the film as to whether I would have been able to tell if it was all fiction without reading the filmmakers’ letter to the audience. I do have a history of naiveté in this area (the first time I saw Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, I wanted to believe that the entire second half of the film was factual), and I feel like I would have believed this was real too except for one thing: in the scene where they’re interviewing potential subjects, I recognized one of them as an actor I’ve seen in other things. This may have been a big enough clue that the story was fabricated, but now I’ll never know.
Special features include some deleted scenes (including one interesting one where Matt asks the camera that that scene not be included in the documentary, which is interesting because it’s like the filmmakers’ made these scenes specifically to be “deleted” from the film), Filmmakers’ commentary, trailers, and an alternate ending. The alternate ending is ok, but they definitely made the right call in ending the film the way they did.
Available on DVD from Film Buff on May 29