Film Text: Watch Over Me

Film Text: Watch Over Me

Watch Over Me

By Bessie Rubinstein

Farida Pacha’s third feature-length documentary, Watch Over Me, closes with a title card bearing information that can be felt throughout the film: only one percent of seriously ill Indians have access to palliative care. The two, overworked caregivers whom Pacha follows, Mani and Sini, are introduced through opening shots of the women making their way to a patient’s home. This man, dying of cancer, is the first of three patients, all with children, whose stories Pacha intercuts. There is no coworker chit-chat between Mani and Sini in their vehicle at the film’s start. They don’t speak to each other, but look ahead. Their expressions are like a rorschach test for the viewer’s feelings about life’s end; a fearful viewer would call their faces solemn, while a more comfortable viewer could detect calmness and preparation.

Pacha shot Watch Over Me in black and white, unlike her other films. The choice forwards this documentary’s affective message: like shades of gray, every patient’s fight against their declining body brings the same emotions, and yet each clinical episode is different in the way that the fear and pain manifest in the patient and their family. Mani and Sini don’t meet the patient inside. Instead, Pacha shoots them greeting his son as they exit the car in a shot which reminds us of the emotional labor, and the triaging of knowledge, that frames each encounter with somebody facing potential death. The patient’s son tells Mani and Sini that his parents don’t know how far his father’s carcinogenic cells have spread—Mani’s easily forthcoming, measured response, that they’ll “keep it in mind,” conveys a sliver of what must be a considerable background in this field of care. Such a steady response to this request—to hide the fact that a man is at death’s threshold from himself and his life partner—speaks more to Mani’s experience addressing life-threatening illness than an overview of her career could.

The air of surrender Mani and Sini take on with their patients, and the shots Pacha inserts throughout—cars speeding through Delhi from behind a smudged windshield, clotheslines and wires swinging in open air—also suggest the mundanity of pathology, of mortality, while bringing up questions of direction and pace. Restless streets become insignificant when contrasted by the minute lateral movements Hanif, another cancerous patient, must make to breathe on his own. Or when a barely conscious mother’s slight turn onto her side can spare her yet more pain. Pacha hones in on gesture and breath, at times getting so close with her camera to the ill subject, their variably swelling and hardening bodies, that the scene becomes almost unbearable. Yet Mani and Sini do not blanch at symptoms in person, nor do the patients’ families. Instead they lean closer; gesture and breath is the only language of the dying. 

And so Pacha must get closer, too. Far from being invasive, a pan to Hanif’s engorged stomach, its rise and fall, communicates his struggle to breath so that he doesn’t have to expend precious energy explaining it. In this way, Pacha’s economical filmmaking is vital. Mani and Sini, too, carry attitudes prioritizing conservation of emotional energy. “No matter what problems come up, we will have to face them,” says Mani in response to families who wish for improbable improvement for their loved ones, or for a few more days, or for final words that the sick person doesn’t have the ability to speak. Just as palliative care may need to prioritize comfort over treatment, caregivers and families might choose peace over honesty. Most in India, as evidenced by the families’ grateful deference to Mani and Sini, receive neither comfort nor treatment. “If you already know you’re going to die,” reflects Hanif (who lives), “then you feel that it can happen at any time.” Through both Pacha’s filmmaking and the caretaking practices she studies, Watch Over Me asks us to accept, even calmly embrace, the realities of what will come.