The socialist concept of “the New Man” is given a new spin in Jacaranda Correa’s conceptually striking and emotionally piercing documentary, “Die Standing Up,” which contains such a remarkable twist in its telling that auds and critics will be wise not to spoil it. Correa and her brilliant cinematographer Dariela Ludlow train their intimate camera on Irina Layevska, enduring MS, and her life partner, Nelida Reyes, whose support is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Docu and LGBT fests worldwide will be calling, and global TV sales should be excellent.
Critical praise, though assured, will be somewhat hamstrung by the challenge of not revealing too many details of Layevska’s life — this despite the fact that the pic is a portrait of Layevska, for whom the term “survivor” seems somehow wholly inadequate.
An additional challenge for auds, critics and buyers will be the film’s formal distinctiveness: While the first 20 minutes detail the early years of Layevska’s life as the child of Mexican communist parents who campaigned in solidarity with Cuba, the remaining sections are set in the present and shot in a verite style much like that of Ludlow’s outstanding 2010 docu, “One Day Less,” also about a couple living one day at a time.
The docu’s success lies in its ability not only to pull off the stark shift in tone and style, but also to provide an honest, unsentimental yet emotional study of its central subjects, who clearly provided Correa extraordinary access to their lives. Despite her MS, Layevska is able to do many things for herself, from writing (typing on a keyboard with pen in mouth) to clothing and bathing, but she’s also thoroughly dependent upon Reyes for food, transport and, above all, emotional support.
Eating dinner, lying in bed or wading in a public pool, the two converse about the challenge of being together, which not only entails Layevska’s illness but also difficult medical procedures. Both having devoted themselves to socialist causes in the past (they’re still politically active, shown demonstrating at a Mexico City gay-pride march), the film carries echoes of Che Guevara’s theme of the transformed individual, or the new man, from the past to the present. For Layevska, Guevara was a hero, even, as she says, “a father figure.” Reyes considers both of them to be living “revolutionary” lives right now, and not as some item of nostalgia from the glory days of the Cuban revolution.
Correa’s filmmaking is charged with imaginative touches, so that her point of view fluidly shifts from Layevska’s domestic activities to Reyes’ work as a subway ticket clerk, and finishes with a haunting flourish. Ludlow’s digital lensing is consistently fine and unobtrusive, even when her camera is like the third person in the room. Taniel Morales’ brilliant percussive underscore blessedly avoids tinkling piano or weepy violins in favor of a much tougher sound.