by Ben Poster
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Of the many strengths that Liz Garbus displays as a filmmaker in her documentary Coma, it’s possible that the one that her audience will appreciate most, will be the one that they notice the least. Ms. Garbus, whether knowingly to or not, ever-so-subtly bridges what I see as the two traditions of what people think of when they think of “documentary films.” And it is exactly this “bridging effect” that I see being responsible for what makes this film so powerful, informative, and affecting.
From public-television’s nature shows, to network National Geographic specials, to the relatively more recent offerings of the Nature, Discovery, and even The Surgery cable-channels, there have been innumerable manifestations of what are, if nothing else, visual documents of a study or investigation—visual ethnographies if you will. These pieces, as implied above, have been broadcast widely to the viewing audience of this country for quite some time. And though I am by means trying to open a debate as to whether or not these should be considered documentary “films,” I do believe that they act as a commonly understood tradition of “informative, non-fiction filmmaking.”
To a significant degree then, Liz Garbus’ Coma would have a place within this tradition—and rightfully so. Coma informs the viewer as much as it does anything else. The title itself acts as a subtle and strategic starting point for where the film itself begins—though most viewer’s know what a Coma is, they most likely aren’t as familiar with what immediately follows them, and that’s really where Garbus’ film picks up.
She introduces us to four patients of the JFK hospital’s neurological department and follows them for a year as the emerge form commas into either a “persistent vegetative state, a minimally conscious state, or beyond.” The access that she grants the viewer into the efforts, therapies, approaches, and emotions of the patients and there families is unprecedented and as informative as any other “programming” that I’ve seen on a subject that I’m less than familiar with.
Yet, her focus here quickly bridges itself into the feelings of those involved and their motivations and feelings towards their loved ones varying progresses towards recovery. Perhaps it is the delicate medical “balance” that these patients reside in that allows her to evolve her focus to those around them; perhaps it is how much still remains unknown about these conditions that allows her to include so many personally motivated interpretations of these patient’s “states”; whatever the case may be though, Garbus’ piece decidedly “crosses over” and becomes a “documentary film” as we’ve come to understand it—a non-fiction narrative. In this form we follow characters, not inquiries or hypothesis, till each other their story arcs reach their ends. Which is exactly what we do with Garbus, as she tidily ties all four of her stories into what truly feels like a conclusive or understandable “end.” And one walks away feeling much more of a floored feeling than an informed one—despite how much Garbus offers as insight into the medical practices of this field. It is these characters and their varying success with the struggle of recovering from a severe head-trauma that affects the viewer, and stays with them. Which will make ‘coma’s broadcast on HBO all the more appropriate—as it is a network of films and their characters first and foremost—although, as I see it, Garbus could’ve shown this film just about anywhere else she wanted to on the ol’ cable dial.
Ben Poster is a film reviewer living in Chicago.
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