Revisited: On Compulsive Home-Movie-Making During Loss, Birth and Hamlet

Bobbi Jene director Elvira Lind on the documentary she shot but may never show about a tumultuous year in her and husband Oscar Isaac's life.

It’s Sunday and one of those uncomfortable hot and humid days in New York that feels like walking around inside a dog’s mouth. Luckily I have spent the day mostly in the darkness of the Public Theater filming the early preparations for a Hamlet production my boyfriend Oscar and his buddy from Juilliard, Sam Gold, are putting together for the following summer.

Oscar works in movies mostly; he has been in many. In the five years we have been together, I have seen him die countless times. I have visited set and watched him get stabbed to death over and over the entire day. He has also been killed by a rocket explosion, by various kinds of knife wounds, by poison (twice), by self-inflicted gunshot to head (twice), drowning (almost), in his spaceship (again almost), from a strange and very fatal disease, from melting via telekinesis, and perhaps some more that I have now forgotten. He has had more haircuts and body shapes than anyone I have known. After years of having people scream “Action!” at him and going on endless press tours in soulless corporate hotel rooms, it’s great to see his excitement grow at the thought of getting back onstage in our adopted home town. This theater workshop week is the happiest I have seen him.

I have just spent three months in an edit room finishing a documentary and am desperate to be shooting something again. Filming from a new perspective helps clear my head. The actors and musician from the Hamlet workshop generously allow me inside with my camera to capture some of their work with my camera. Oscar and Sam want to keep some documentation of their Hamlet process for archival purposes (also known as future nostalgia). I film them playfully chew their way through Shakespeare’s tragedy in an explosion of creative energy. I am captivated by it.

During that week, I don’t think much of my sudden disgust with the smell of palo santo wood that Oscar insists on burning during the workshop. However, a handful of positive pregnancy tests that Sunday afternoon reveal why I have developed a sensitivity to this odor. The news is joyous to me since Oscar and I have agreed that having a baby would be a wonderful thing. However, in that moment of realization, it is also scary. I know that it will challenge my work as a documentary filmmaker in which I am used to traveling alone for long periods of time, always being ready to get up and go wherever the story I am working on dictates. This could become testing. However, in my thirties my primal instincts have slowly silenced that part of my brain that wanted to continue life as a lone wolf on the prowl for new stories to film. I will find a way to continue doing both, I assure myself. It has been done before.

It catches me off guard when Oscar arrives home earlier than I had expected that Sunday. He suddenly stands in the door of our apartment, and he looks so sad. Not like the guy I had said goodbye to at the theater that morning. He has received a call. His mom is ill, they didn’t know what it is yet, but it seems to be serious. He is frightened.

I have never seen anyone love their mom as much as Oscar loves his, an incredible lady, a fighter, a tough cookie. She balances soft and gentle with a great temper and sharp humor.

After a couple of hours of us both pacing up and down the apartment not knowing what to do, and me not knowing how to now share the news about my pregnancy, I eventually manage to whisper it to him. Like a shy child on her first day of school.

We sit on the terrace, in the last moments of the day’s sun, holding the best and the worst news at the same time.

For the next year, only three things happen in our life. Hamlet, Oscar’s mom’s fight against an aggressive cancer, and the baby who had decided to join us in the midst of this turmoil.

Sometimes life is a crazy, crazy ride, with birth and death plowing your timeline at the same speed. Like being hit by a hurricane, pants down. We hadn’t braced ourselves for the impact.

At first, we are completely numbed by what is happening. We take everything day by day, some days hour by hour, as things with Oscar’s mom get more serious. And then, at some point, I grab my camera and start shooting randomly. I convince myself that I am shooting footage to cover Oscar and Sam’s work on the Hamlet production. And yes, I am filming Sam and him figuring out how to tackle this beast of a play and Oscar becoming Hamlet. But rehearsing the role of a man deeply mourning his father’s death is very close to home suddenly. Simultaneously, I film trips to the hospital’s intensive care unit in Miami, lying upside down on the passenger seat, contorting my seven-months-pregnant bod, to get a good shot of Oscar rehearsing his Hamlet lines while he drives. Hamlet starts to become a small island that Oscar has been washed up on in the middle of this unbearable loss. I film when we can’t sleep, I film when more and more of Oscar’s family arrive with suitcases until we all live in the same house together. Day after day, they go through moments of such sorrow. They talk in Spanish and I struggle to understand the words but I understand the incredible intimacy they share, something we don’t share on that level in Scandinavia.

I film the dogs tanning in the sun, someone baking a cake for a birthday, Guatemalan meals being cooked loudly. Oscar on calls with his agent and the theater, trying to get Werner Herzog’s incredible Dutch cellist to be in the play. I film when Oscar sings to his mom after she loses consciousness, as the family watches the sunrise together the morning she passes away. The sky is bathed in colors. I keep filming when we have to return to our life in New York and I am a month away from birth. We make fun of my swollen body. I film when we plan a shotgun wedding with a handful of people on some friends’ roof on the only summer day in February. When I am 10 days overdue and my film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, it receives a bunch of awards and I have to record my acceptance speeches from the delivery room.

Our son arrives and again life is turned upside down. I keep filming when Hamlet comes to life in our home, comes to life on the stage and when Oscar practices having his life end with poison – for a third time in his career. I film as Oscar has to find a way through a play, for four hours every night, that is about the devastation of losing a parent.

I film our son growing bigger and bigger and the proud look in my husband’s eyes when he looks back at me through the lens. I film our lightest moments and our darkest moments. They are rubbing against each other, but the lightest begin to take over. I film incoherently and with no real aim in mind. I just record us, I record to get some distance and filter reality through my various camera lenses. My camera is always just sitting there ready to shoot. In the end, I don’t even ask before I shoot, I film people who are visiting us, the guy who works at the garage, Oscar when he is sleeping. Sometimes I don’t film anything for days and other times I film non-stop, even with my free arm while I am breastfeeding my baby with the other.

I wonder if people who work as accountants just work on numbers frantically in similar heated life moments.

Perhaps I film to digest my own reality. Seeing my life through my camera bit by bit somehow helps me.

I organize this footage in folders, I back it up on a second drive, I treat it like I do my other films. But I know that even though this may be the strongest, most honest and unfiltered footage I have ever captured, it will most likely never get seen by anyone.

I wonder how many stories sit out there, on a shelf for a lifetime, because it is just too close to the life of the one who filmed or wrote or composed it. Many, I imagine.

I ask so much of the people I film for my documentary films. I film my subjects in their most intimate moments. I barge into their lives and capture them while they are in the middle of making difficult life decisions, breaking up or about to make love. And yet, when I point the camera in my own life’s direction, I am cowardly and can’t imagine sharing it with anyone.

But, I guess, time will have to tell. The readiness is all.

Born in 1981 in Copenhagen, Elvira Lind graduated from City Varsity School of Media and Creative Arts in Cape Town in 2006, majoring in documentary film. She has worked within that field since directing and shooting documentaries of various lengths for TV, cinema, and web on 4 different continents. Elvira now lives and works out of New York, where she also writes on various fiction projects. Elvira’s first feature documentary, Songs for Alexis, competed at IDFA in 2014 and screened at a long list of international festivals; she received CPH:DOX new talent award in 2015; and her first international documentary TV series, Twiz and Tuck, launched on Viceland this year. Elvira’s second feature documentary, Bobbi Jene, premiered at Tribeca 2017 and is being released theatrically by Oscilloscope from September 22.