Olivia Luengas’ Lejos del sentido, which won the top prize for a documentary at the Havana Film Festival New York, is a deeply personal work of nonfiction. Old home movies and crystal clear footage are woven together by the narration of Luengas’ ailing sister, Liliana, as she struggles to make sense of the world and of her lifetime of pain. After a chance infection with viral encephalitis at age three robbed Liliana of her carefree childhood, mental illness followed in her adolescence, and with it, years of doctors’ misdiagnoses and eventually, drug addiction. She recounts the painful steps in voice-over while Olivia’s images reflect her sister’s natural surroundings in Mexico. Liliana relates her volatile health with the active volcano they live close to. At one point in the film, her father refers to her as a “ticking time bomb.”
Although Olivia holds the camera, Lejos del sentido feels like Liliana’s story. Her voice-over musings read like diary entries, almost too candid for her parents, too sad for her doctors, and too self-loathing for strangers. But this is her emotional homework, sorting out the equations and exercises to extract how she truly feels outside the influence of her Borderline personality disorder. These confessional tracks show a side of Liliana most of the world would never see or notice; instead overlooking her as a middle-aged woman who struggles to walk fast or carry things.
In contrast, Olivia removes herself almost entirely from the frame in order to focus on Liliana, her harrowing experiences and her fraught relationship with her parents. In voice-over, Liliana tells the audience that two of Mexico’s biggest mental health hospitals have shuttered. They were places where she had sought treatment, and their closing has unmoored her and separated her from the doctors and fellow patients she befriended. Luckily, she still keeps in touch with another patient from one of the closed hospitals, and their friendship gives the movie some of its most tender moments.
Much of the movie is about Liliana wrestling with her illness and her family. Opposite the moments of clarity and open dialogue, there are conflict and heated exchanges between the two parties. Both sides are frustrated with each other. There are a few moments where Olivia turns the camera to her parents and how they feel about Liliana’s illness, the guilt of feeling like they haven’t done enough and the constant push to still be there for her when she pushes them away. The camera watches these moments in a fly-on-the-wall observational style. Later, the documentary will return to filming nature, the details of Liliana’s room or the subject writing in a journal, back to stillness and calm that allows us to hear her over the noise of everything else happening in her life.
Highlighting this discord between scenes of conflict and quiet is an unnerving sound punctuating the voice-over. I cannot tell you where it comes from or what its purpose is other than to make the audience more uncomfortable with what’s going on on-screen. Part of these discordant sounds stem from auditory spells meant to mirror the way Liliana becomes overwhelmed by her surroundings — which Olivia recreates by colliding sounds and images into a blur. If we felt and saw the world as she did, we would likely be dizzy too.
Luengas’ Lejos del sentido does not make any grand pronouncements about the world or the state of mental hospitals in Mexico beyond what Liliana has to say. It’s in the details of her experience that we can hear her in a way the system may never see her. Olivia may hardly be in the movie, but her presence is felt in the gorgeous time-lapse photography of the local active volcano and the way that her sister opens up to her. Lejos del sentido maybe a difficult — sometimes heartbreaking — movie to watch, but it’s a fascinating example of how to share someone else’s story without losing sight of its subject.
Lejos del sentido screened at the Havana Film Festival New York.