I have to be honest I was given a list of screeners to review and honestly just picked the first one. Reading the synopsis, I would not have picked this film to watch at the Cineplex, or at a festival. It really isn’t what I would call my cup of tea. But, I would have missed out on a truly beautiful, moving, and engaging experience.
36 hours is a documentary that puts you in the room of a young couple during the birth of their child. It focuses on tiny moments of real drama and pathos, and it is a welcome change of pace to a cinematic landscape overrun with explosive cataclysmic melodrama. It is an anti-Endgame if you will.
Capturing a raw emotional intensity that is still somehow understated and restrained, director Adam Sekuler turns the audience into a literal fly on the wall. While you are a passive voyeur in this situation, you are somehow drawn into the ups and downs of this tortuous 36 hours of labor. You are there with the couple as they struggle with sticking to their natural birth plan or opting for a cesarean birth as the hours drag on.
“…you are somehow drawn into the ups and downs of this tortuous 36 hours of labor.”
36 hours, compared to other films coming out this year has stakes that are absolutely subatomic. But, by sucking you into their life, they feel more impactful than a host of Thanoses. (Thanoseses? Thanosi? whatever). Sekuler achieves this by letting the camera wander as the eye does. Instead of focusing exclusively on their faces, the camera wanders about the room. You get a close up of the monitors, someone’s foot, and a pair of hands gripped hard enough to turn the knuckles white. He expertly picks his moment to go from extreme close up out to wide shots, much in the same way your attention would switch focus in this situation. Everything about this feels impossibly natural. It is a testament not only to his skill as a filmmaker, but also the bravery of the subjects. To just live their lives with a camera present and not feel the need to perform or play to the camera in any way.
There are some minor problems, of course.
Like many indie films, 36 hours has less than optimal sound quality. But, considering the style that is used and the way it is filmed, I think we can forgive them. I honestly don’t think a boom mic or some clip mics would have worked in the birthing room.
“Capturing a raw emotional intensity that is still somehow understated and restrained…”
36 hours also starts with 4 minutes of our subject nude in the woods doing an interpretive dance. More of the dance is interspersed throughout the piece. I have struggled with this, trying to understand it. I have tried to put myself in the director’s shoes and come up with a reason for it. But, as hard as I try, I can’t force myself to see how it could work. In my mind, you have two films here. Either an experimental performance piece or a documentary. Either is more powerful on its own and putting them together felt jarring and incongruous. Full marks for attempting something unique, but I just didn’t get it.
It is another unfortunately named film in that if you Bing it, you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find a spy thriller from the ’50s or a TV documentary series where they spend 36 hours with a subject. So be sure and add the director’s name to find out where you can see this moving piece of cinema.
In the end, there is really only one of two things that can happen in the story, and I don’t’ want to spoil it for you. I can only reiterate that this is a remarkably engaging film and one of the best surprises of the year. Due in no small part to its brilliant director, it’s extraordinarily heroic subjects and its utterly authentic look into a part of human life that has been overly sanitized in popular culture.
36 hours (2019) Directed by Adam Sekuler
8 out of 10