Illness narratives. Second stop: (Pseudo)Biographical Documentary Works

A conversation with Răzvan Georgescu on Testimony

I discovered Răzvan Georgescu’s documentary Testimony with a sort of enchantment, while researching for my project on illness narratives. I was happy at the moment, I guess, because I’d found a Romanian dealing with the topic of illness narratives. Somehow, that made me think I could better grasp his work, as we had the Romanian language in common. But I was soon to find out that illness is both an individual experience and a common ground at the same time, something that both separates and puts together people, a sort of primitive language of its own.

I was interested in Testimony because of the distinct profile of the work: I like to call it (pseudo)biographical documentary on illness narratives, because when Răzvan Georgescu, the director, found out he had a malignant brain tumor and just a couple of more years to live, he decided to embark on a search and make a documentary not about himself, but about and with a series of artists – dealing with illness as well – negotiating their life and identity in terms of authenticity and creativity.

You can have a look at the trailer for Testimony here.

I wrote to him about this interview two months ago and was surprised when he didn’t immediately answer, as he always did. I have to admit I was worried. He wrote me back from the hospital telling me he is undergoing a new series of medical procedures because of a giant relapse, but that he was willing to answer my questions. I felt very humble. I can never thank him enough for taking time to share his thoughts on illness now, when time is so very precious, once more, for him.

What is illness for you?

Illness is a greedy, time-devouring beast.

When, at the age of 38, I was diagnosed with a malignant, terminal brain tumor, the doctors also informed me that I had 2 or maximum 3 more years to live… »Better get ready« they said. What the hell were they talking about? Never would 2 or 3 years suffice to get ready, whatsoever. Not at the age of 38!

The hunger of the beast in my brain accelerated the cascading sands of my remaining time at a swindling pace. I matured and aged in fast forward.

Due to the location of my tumor, I partially lost my eye-sight and temporarily lost the ability to understand the meaning of spoken words. I partially, but permanently lost the control upon my right arm and leg. Quite devastating symptoms for a documentary filmmaker and author. How to face other people, how to listen to their stories, how to enter a dialogue, how to explore the world and unknown territories with such disabilities?!

At the same time, the beast also tackled all my remaining physical reserves and my determination to engage in a battle against it, a battle I hadn’t anticipated and therefore, could not have strategically planned in advance.

»Like any other situation of sudden limitation, of panic, despair, hopelessness and disdain, a terminal illness also fires one’s intuition, one’s mental and spiritual energies, one’s focus, one’s best and hideous parts.« Răzvan Georgescu

Like any other situation of sudden limitation, of panic, despair, hopelessness and disdain, a terminal illness also fires one’s intuition, one’s mental and spiritual energies, one’s focus, one’s best and hideous parts. But most of all, it has the power to fire and free one’s creativity, too, I learned that myself. So, as I acknowledged all these elements, confessed them, trusted them, I used them as my mighty weapons. The sharpest sword in this war against the beast was my scarce creativity. But even so, the outcome of this epic battle remained uncertain. Of course and foremost, one needs in such a situation the best army of doctors one can get, the empathy, the expertise, the fighting skills of its captains. One also needs the tender support of the beloved at the home front and, not to forget, a big portion of luck.

I had them all. Three brain surgeries, four chemotherapies, three radio-therapies, one immunotherapy and, most importantly, an ocean of love engulfing me. These were the carrying waters that allowed me to embark on a creative journey across two continents and four countries in order to realize the feature length documentary Testimony, about artists, creators of new worlds, who had been facing a terminal illness themselves or had survived an encounter with their own mortality. Artists who worked on what they thought might be their last masterpiece: painter Jörg Immendorff, visual artist Bill Viola, composer William Finn, sculptor Peter Jecza, painter Catherine Sherwood, writer Helmut Dubiel, my father – composer Remus Georgescu.

Had these experiences been a boost for their creativity? Can the creative spirit be an armor against oblivion and transitoriness? Did they have any answers to my questions that could help me to »get ready«? So yes, I hoped that if one were lucky, one might transcend by means of artistic creativity, this very physical, very brutal, very ugly, very cold experience of disease and decay, and even access some sort of transfiguration, truthfulness, redemption, beauty, warmth and legacy, one might even survive the fight. At least for a while. Therefore, yes, one might also… »get ready«, somehow. I learned that even in such a state of fatigue and miserable distress, it is important that you decide, whether you want to be a chorus to your own unfolding history and progressing drama or a protagonist, the king of the play.

»I learned that even in such a state of fatigue and miserable distress, it is important that you decide, whether you want to be a chorus to your own unfolding history and progressing drama or a protagonist, the king of the play.«Răzvan Georgescu

Contemplating the mere decay of your body is not really creative, it is too flat and it might frighten (or bore) your audience. But, make your imaginary forces work and this unworthy scaffold of your illness may become the swelling scene for your transformation, it may cram the very casques of your warriors within this cockpit, this stage of yours and it may even attract the patience of an audience that gently hears and kindly judges your play.

And thus, against death and all oblivious enmities you shall pace forth. Wouldn’t it be great? Just as simple as that?

What did illness teach you?

Being confronted with a terminal illness and death has been an awe-inspiring experience for me… Of course, one can spend the remaining time in bitterness, anger and despair, or one can nourish one’s creativity, open their eyes, their heart and their mind for the miracles surrounding them, multiply them with one’s own creative resources. Then, there will be hope and beauty and love again. I decided to test the second option.

Apparently, illness also made me lose my fear of emotional manners and pompous style. It made me more outspoken. As you can read, I can now utter and spell words like »love«, »forgiveness« »grace «, »eternity«, »legacy« »second chance«, »redemption«, »gratitude«, »creativity«, without flushing or feeling like an impostor. I have had a fleeting glimpse of their meanings.

Not that I suddenly welcome melodrama and cheap effects, but I salute passion, earnestness and a good fight.

Illness also made me (re)discover and value even more truly unchanging Greatness (such as William Shakespeare’s, Gustav Mahler’s, Rainer Maria Rilke’s or Johann Sebastian Bach’s).

It also made me feel grateful, for the time I was given, the love of my children, the love of my wife, of my parents, still around, for the films I was still able to make, for the people I had the honor to meet.

What was the effect of telling/showing the story of illness on yourself?

Oddly enough, during the three years I worked on the documentary Testimony, my brain tumor stopped growing, even entered a short phase of remission, although I was not undergoing any medical treatment. Two months after completing and delivering the film, the tumor recurred. So I immediately started working on a next film and writing a book. This time, they had nothing to do with my cancer. But the effect was quite similar. Another book followed, a collection of children’s stories; and, although my tumour has kept aggressively progressing ever since until this day, I have been able to add 13 more years to my life, instead of the initially prognoses of 2 or 3 years. Did I make the best of them? I don’t know. At least I had the chance to try.

How was the process of telling the story of illness and then sharing it with the world?

Exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

Although the film was an international coproduction, to a large degree financed by several television station, I had the absolute freedom and authority to make the film without anybody interfering in the creative process. There is only this version of the film, the director’s cut, no other variation on the theme. A very satisfying feeling for me.

What is the message of your movie? What does it stand for?

The message is the film itself. It would not have been possible without the illness and without the fight against the beast. If there is any conclusion, then it can only speak for every individual viewer. I hope they will respond to the film in a very personal and individual manner.

Răzvan Georgescu was born in Târgu Mureş, Romania, in 1965. He studied German and English philology at the University of Bucharest. He holds a degree in philology and film semiotics. He moved to Germany in the winter of 1989 and started his career working as a film and video editor and as a live-TV gallery director, before working as a program editor, for the German-French public television ARTE, and for the German broadcasters ZDF and ARD. He edited and supervised several editions of the weekly cultural program Metropolis on ARTE. Since 1994, he has been directing and producing internationally coproduced, award winning creative documentaries, both for theatrical and TV release: e.g. »The H.P. phenomenon« (2002), »Children of the Decree« (2004), »Testimony« (2008/Prix Europa for the best European TV documentary), »Trading Germans« (2016), etc. His films have been distributed or broadcasted in most European countries, in the US and in Canada.

He is the author of two books: Biopsy of Love (Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Bertelsmann-randomhouse, 2011) – written together with his wife Tina Georgescu (co-author) – and Fibunsi, a collection of fairy tales and an audiobook (published by the Triade Publishing Foundation, Timişoara/Romania, 2015).

He is currently recovering from a strenuous medical treatment and undergoing palliative care, while developing an experimental documentary-essay, which has nothing to do with illness.