The banner for humanist cinema is raised high in Arunas Matelis’ exquisitely wrought doc about children with cancer, “Before Flying Back to the Earth.” With neither clinical distance nor excessive sympathy, pic acutely observes kids of various ages and conditions enduring treatment at Vilnius U. Children’s Hospital. Scoring as both documentary art for general auds and usefully therapeutic viewing for cancer patients and their loved ones, Matelis’ film has been highly lauded on fest circuit, selected as Lithuania’s 2006 foreign-language Oscar submission and is a lock, at 52 minutes, for tube sales worldwide.
It’s been 31 years since Krzysztof Kieslowski made perhaps his most devastating nonfiction work, “Hospital,” which gazed without commentary upon a Polish med unit, so strapped for resources that overworked doctors were forced to use hammers and nails to repair broken limbs. Based in another former communist nation, Matelis (whose daughter underwent cancer treatment at the Vilnius hospital) generally applies a similar mode of filmmaking, but finds an institution that’s vastly better equipped and staffed with caring and attentive professionals.
The children’s strength and optimism impress throughout the pic, encapsulated in the opening moments when a boy has his head shaved, his expression of worry melting into a youthful grin. Other kids turn ordinary hospital implements (a drip stand, a pencil, a bed rail) into toys, or are easily distracted by watching a soccer game on TV, imagining themselves as Spider-Man or practicing their kung-fu moves.
Andrius, a boy with oral cancer who’s undergoing a bone marrow transplant, even takes up Matelis’ camera and shoots some of his own footage. But the fun and games, life-affirming though they may be, are mere distractions from the painful business of various therapies and tests. This pain, interestingly enough, is conveyed almost exclusively by parents, in brief but deeply touching moments, and the highly sensitive doctors, concerned about parents mistakenly feeling guilty about their child’s condition.
When one of the young patients observes how difficult it must be for the staff to watch a daily stream of hospitalized kids, it’s all Matelis needs to convey the idea that in the relationship between the sick and caregivers, empathy runs both ways. This is further heightened in recurring montages of superbly executed black-and-white photographs (some shot by Matelis and his ace lenser Audrius Kemezys) capturing telling moments with the kids and those who care for them.
The word “death” is never uttered here, but it floats like an ether through the film, a thing to be neither feared nor wished for. Instead, death’s wordless presence is like the passing of time suggested in various exterior cutaway shots of the children’s hospital: Nature will have its course, and the filmmaking is brave enough to accept that fact on its own terms.