First Cousin Once Removed is the fascinating and revealing documentary from HBO that depicts what life is like for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. The film was produced, directed and edited by Alan Berliner (Wide Awake) and co-produced by Shari Spiegel.
Edwin Honig was a giant in the literary world, although many may not have heard of him. He was a poet, a speaker of many languages (including Ladino), a lover of music, a translator of literary greats like Pessoa and Cervantes and was twice knighted, first by the President of Portugal and then by the King of Spain for his work. Edwin was also a veteran, a teacher and friend to countless students, a husband and a father to two adopted boys. He also had a disease that rendered all of his accomplishments moot because, after a time, they were all forgotten. Alzheimer’s, which is a horrible disease to endure and witness, had taken its latest victim. Over the course of five years, Alan Berliner gave viewers an unflinching look at how his cousin, friend and mentor progressively went from a lively, interesting and complicated man to one devoid of almost all memory.
The film begins with its director, Alan Berliner, making his way to Edwin’s apartment on several different occasions. Each time, Edwin greeted his cousin differently: sometimes he recognized Alan and other times, not at all. On the days that Alan was not recognized, Edwin greeted him with bewilderment, a bit of hesitation and even genuine fear. In one instance, he expressed that fear to his cousin when he said, “I don’t know you and I’m afraid,” which was clearly evident. On good days, Edwin was interesting, lively and a constant poet, using words to playfully turn a phrase or answer one of Alan’s questions. As the film progressed, Alan showed his cousin various photographs of family members, trying to jog Edwin’s memories, if he could. Unfortunately, the grip Alzheimer’s had on Edwin’s memory was a firm one, and it was very difficult for him to remember his mother, father or his children, if at all. Alan also talked to various friends, former students and family members, including his sister Lila, who initially did not approve of the making of the film. She felt that her brother was being taken advantage of and him being filmed was demeaning for someone as accomplished and learned as Edwin. It wasn’t until she was told that her brother gave full permission to be filmed that Lila participated freely.
As I watched First Cousin Once Removed, it was quite evident the impact Edwin had on the people in his life, good and bad. His former students were virtually in awe of him and talked about how generous he was with his time. His friends were equally enamored with Edwin, but they were also honest. Edwin never complimented anyone, not even his sons, except for his cousin Alan. Most said that he could be mean and very critical, which seemed to have caused the most damage to his sons, who eventually became estranged from their father. Their mother, Margot, said that Edwin was a fantastic father to the boys as babies, but once they developed their own personalities, he turned into a different person. But those qualities did not take away from his great love of words and music. Edwin’s poetry was interspersed throughout the film, using different mediums along with images to create a sort of frantic symbolism of the chaos Alzheimer’s inflicts on its sufferers. Edwin’s musicality played a significant role in the film, as he would whistle, clap or play an instrument to liven things up, or maybe, to remember that he loved music in the first place.
Aside from Edwin’s ever-changing personality, Alan used this film, it seemed, to answer his own questions about memory and its loss, since his father Oscar also suffered from Alzheimer’s. At one point, Alan asked Edwin if he had any advice to help him deal with the possibility of developing the disease. Edwin poignantly said, “prepare yourself, it’s worse than what you think.” Good advice.
First Cousin Once Removed is currently airing on HBO, HBO On Demand and HBO GO.