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Heartland: Eat Your Catfish
This enthralling documentary following a woman with ALS will leave you vibrating with empathy, rage and joy.
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“Eat Your Catfish” is one of the most emotionally enthralling cinematic experiences you will ever have. It will leave you vibrating with anger and sympathy, but also joy and hope.
The premise is simple: Kathryn Arjomand is a woman with late-stage ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which robs of her ability to move her limbs, speak or take care of herself on even the most basic level. The filmmakers rigged up a camera above her wheelchair to record her life for months on end, so we experience the world from her perspective. They then edited nearly 1,000 hours of footage down into this 74-minute documentary.
Kathryn also narrates using the computer-generated voice supplied with the computer display through which she communicates, which is activated by her vision — one of the few things over which she retains control, plucking out her words letter by letter.
As the movie opens, she is upfront that she has been staying alive only so she can see her daughter, Minou, married in a ceremony scheduled for the fall. She also wants to ensure her younger child, son Noah, finishes his dissertation and receives his PhD. Noah lives with Kathryn and her husband, Said, in their cramped New York City condominium and bears much of the burden for her 24/7 care, along with a gaggle of home health aids who rotate in and out of their lives.
At some point after her children are settled, Kathryn intends to commit suicide — either by physician assistance or simply failing to reconnect her breathing tube when it falls out, which happens multiple times per day. The documentary jumps back and forth between the months leading up to the wedding and it actually unfolding, so we can witness her emotional state as tensions ratchet up and she prepares for her final exit.
It was Noah’s idea to make this documentary, and he shares directing credits along with Adam Isenberg and Senem Tüzen.
The imagery is arresting, as we see everything from a fish-eye camera that only allows us to see the top of Kathryn’s head. People lean into the frame so they can speak with her or assist her with the various tubes, wires and other accoutrements that keep her alive. She is constantly in need of being repositioned to relieve her pain, and physical therapists bend her limbs constantly, including pushing her foot into the lens in a way that feels strangely intimate.
The central dynamic is that Kathryn doesn’t want to be a burden on her family, but at the same time she demands to have her dignity and has needs that she can’t meet herself. It is fair to say that, at times, she insists on being the center of attention and seems uncaring about how much stress she places on others. It is also fair to say that her caregivers, especially those closest to her, often lose patience with her and seem ready for her to die.
The antagonist of the piece, at least for first impressions, is Said. A self-important academic, he does not want to listen to Kathryn’s requests or to Noah’s instructions on how to properly care for her. He is constantly impatient and combative. Several health aids have quit because of his hectoring and yelling. With his protruding belly, dark, bearded visage and sarcastic manner, Said can seem like a cartoonish villain.
Kathryn makes no secret of the fact that whatever love existed in their marriage was killed by her disease, and she would divorce him if it were financially or logistically feasible.
But just as we’re ready to write Said off, we also have scenes where Kathryn is hurling insults at him through her computer voice, often repeated over and over again, calling him a coward and the weakest man she’s ever known. These are sort of things you say at the end of a relationship to ensure it stays dead forever. The fact that Said remains, and shows glimpses of genuine affection here and there, forces us to reexamine how this terrible situation must register from the viewpoint opposite her camera.
Even Noah, held up as the loving, devoted son, has moments where he breaks down and berates his mother terribly, calling her manipulative and selfish. Keep in mind: he is aware, more than anyone else, that the camera is there and these conversations are being recorded. It speaks to his integrity as a son and filmmaker that they did not wind up on the editing room floor.
The title comes from a line in the movie, “August: Osage County,” that Kathryn references, a scene in which she says Julia Roberts over-acts as a bossy woman telling everyone what to do. I think Kathryn both fears that she is becoming that person, and is resentful that to her it’s a choice between that or existing as “a vegetable.”
Kathryn will comment about the making of the movie, worrying that it will be too boring or that people will simply pity her and see her life as unworthy of living.
“For me there has always been a moral imperative to fight for every day in this world,” she says.
There are mountains of despair and suffering in “Eat Your Catfish.” Despite Kathryn’s worries, it’s impossible to not feel for her an empathy that includes an element of condescension. But there are equal pinnacles of admiration and happiness, as a woman desperately clings to whatever life she’s able to have, for as long as she chooses.
This life, and this extraordinary documentary, are a victory over the darkness.