First Cousin Once Removed

Edwin Conig, the subject of "First Cousin Once Removed"

Edwin Honig, the subject of “First Cousin Once Removed”

Documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner

Documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner

“I have no night of what I knew in the morning.” Edwin Honig.

“If I was interested in family, which I was, then I wanted to go towards my own,” is how documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner describes a good portion of his work.  Berliner’s filmography includes the documentaries “Nobody’s Business” (1996) about his father, Oscar, and “Intimate Stranger” (1991) about his grandfather, Joseph Cassuto.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Berliner, a filmmaker I have long admired, to discuss his work, particularly his new documentary, “First Cousin Once Removed,” about his cousin Edwin Honig.  “First Cousin Once Removed” will premiere on HBO, September 23 at 9:00 pm.  It is not to be missed.

Edwin Honig was a well-known poet, critic and translator.  He was knighted by the President of Portugal and the King of Spain for his work as a translator of Spanish and Portugese poems and literature.  Honig also established a writing program at Brown University, where he taught. “First Cousin Once Removed,” is a lyrical, poetic, humorous, sad, uplifting and ultimately life affirming chronicle of Honig, recorded over a period of five years, as he experiences and reacts to Alzheimer’s as only a poet could.   Honig died on May 25, 2011.

“The mind can be blank, and still be going.  That’s the trouble,” Honig explains about having Alzheimer’s.  Berliner describes Honig’s observations as “gifts of wisdom.”  He points out that, “These are reports from the front as to what he was going through.  I just know that this is an intelligent man who is trying to assess the changes that he is undergoing, a metamorphosis that has become his life.”

“I know there’s a past and I know that I lived in it, and I gave it up to live only in the present,” Honig observes.  Despite his memory loss, Honig retains a sense of humor and a poet’s playfulness with words.  When Berliner tells him that he and his mother are first cousins Honig asks, “What makes me first?”  When Berliner then explains that he and Honig are first cousins once removed Honig asks, “Why am I removed?”

Looking at video interview footage of his pre-Alzheimer’s self re-counting his many accomplishments, Honig says, “He’s trying to be someone.”  Berliner explained, “He’s describing what, for many of us, life is.  We all have ambition to be something and Edwin is freed of that.   That was the ironic blessing of his Alzheimer’s.  He no longer felt any anxiety about whether his book is being published, how his poems are being received.  He was really freed of all that.”  Honig perhaps echoes Berliner’s sentiments when he composes a spontaneous poem on camera, “Once upon a time I was an interesting fellow.  Now I don’t read or write without a bed of jello.”

Berliner explained that Alzheimer’s is not a linear disease.  During his many visits, over five years, Berliner never knew how Edwin would be.  One thing though was always the same for Berliner.  “I always went looking for Edwin, my friend, my cousin, my mentor, the poet, translator,” he said.

Of the experience of being with his cousin and creating this documentary Berliner explained, “It both challenged me and inspired me as a filmmaker to look for visual metaphors that would give the film its poetics.”  Here, as in many of his documentaries, Berliner uses stock footage in a manner that is unique, original and highly creative.  For example, slow motion, black and white stock footage of a section of a bridge collapsing follows and enhances Honig’s statement, “I don’t have much of a memory now.  I’ve lost something.”  Throughout the film the screen is often filled with words accompanied by the sounds of a typewriter, great visual and aural metaphors for Honig, a master wordsmith.

Berliner wanted to make a documentary about memory.  Honig, knowing he was losing his memory, wanted to be Alan’s subject.  Berliner said, “I always thought Edwin would think of this (“First Cousin Once Removed”) as his last, grand, poetic gesture.  As far as I’m concerned he never stopped being a poet throughout.  I think the film is filled with love.  I think the film gives him dignity.  I’ve even had a few viewers say that, as sad as it is, they find it uplifting.  I also think that Edwin, while he is the subject of the film, he is also the co-author of the film.”  Apropos to this, when Berliner feeds him the line, “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” Honig responds, “You be camera and I’ll be all.”  Berliner continues, “Edwin has allowed me to create a work that allows us to preserve the mind of a poet and a writer with Alzheimer’s and what we can learn from that about poetry and memory and forgetting.”

“I couldn’t and wouldn’t have made this film about anybody else,” Berliner explained.  “This film is a culmination of decades of family kinship, artistic kinship, long walks, long talks.  It’s the culmination of very, very long intimate relationship that I had with Edwin, as his friend, as his cousin, in the mentoring capacity.  I also knew that Edwin was a poet and he believed in the power of a work of art.  Edwin used to teach me that good poetry should get to the heart of the matter.  Good poetry should touch people in their souls.  Don’t flinch and don’t be afraid.  This is what I do.  I try to find opportunities to get to the essence of what it means to be human.”  


He wrote poems.

They had a private sound.

A few were long

and ran aground.

Some were short-

too bitter

or too sweet.

The rest were wild, the worst discreet

Edwin Honig



About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on September 17, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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