A Parable for Our Times

Film Review by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York

‘Daughter’ (Daria Kashcheeva, Czech Republic, 2019)

“Daughter” was the 2019 winner of the “Student Oscar” for the best animated film created by a student from an international school, an award bestowed by the U.S. Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

“Daughter” has a message that is both timely and perennial about the importance of resolving troubled parent-child relationships before death, a contingency that is lacking for those Covid-19 patients who die on ventilators and for whom physical visitation and in-person communication are perforce prohibited. Set against inventively painted backgrounds, the characters in “Daughter” are puppets that appear to be constructed of papier-mâché. They are themselves extraordinary works of art that have been skillfully graced with emotionally coherent facial expressions.

In the film’s opening scene, a woman gazes at her dying father on a hospital bed, and a stray bird suddenly crashes through the window. For the daughter, this startling occurrence calls forth a specific childhood memory, known to psychoanalysts as a “screen memory,” in which the details are vividly recalled because they occurred at a critical developmental moment or event in the child’s life. In this instance the woman relives a scenario from her childhood in which she felt neglected by her single-parent father. She could not successfully attract his attention while pots on the stove boiled over, as he, flustered and overwhelmed by an unfamiliar task, struggled to prepare their dinner. The little daughter wanted to show him a motherless creature (with which she obviously identified), a baby bird that had flown into the window, helpless and lost, but the father was too preoccupied. So, she became oppositional and turned to creating her own “holding environment,” depicted by a bird’s nest that sprang up dramatically around her.

Some years later, we see that her father has tried to make amends, but the daughter, now a defiant angry adolescent, rejects him. He is mystified and saddened. Meanwhile, there is a boisterously laughing group of young adults on the train in which they are riding, individuals who have bright red dots that have been painted on their cheeks. These dots signify (to this writer, at least) that these happy young people had had sufficient reassurances of love in childhood to be carefree and hopeful in this phase of life; but the embittered daughter cannot accept from her father the dots he offers.

The scene then shifts back to the hospital, where the now-adult daughter realizes that time has run out, and finding an empty bed, she is panicked to think that her aged, ill father might have died without some sign of love or forgiveness from her. But fortunately, there is still time for that, if just barely. Having removed the mask that she once wore as a child, the daughter recognizes the importance of the moment. Father and daughter appear briefly as they had years before, and in this mode, they embrace before his death. In a poignant crescendo the symbolic bird is released back to nature–a neat representation of either death or rebirth, depending on how one chooses to view it; either way, it is a gesture of lightness and love. The daughter is now relieved of a weighty burden of conflict, and the viewer senses that henceforth she will be able to live fully and freely.

The immediate relevance of this story to the practice of palliative medicine in the spring of 2020 is that dying Covid-19 patients, particularly those on ventilators, and also in nursing homes, are missing this vital piece of palliation for themselves and their families. Face-time and other electronic devices have helped fill the gap to a degree, but an actual physical embrace, like the one shown in this film, may be critical to healing and to the resolution of grief in the aftermath of death. There appears to be a narrow window of openness to forgiveness, in the film a literal window smashed open by the hapless bird, but under ordinary circumstances abetted by a more gradual awareness of the inevitability of death, by maturation, or by the cumulative effects of life experience. This new receptiveness might even apply to relationships where there has been frank abuse–parent-child and child-parent–or estrangement that likewise can originate from either parent or child. In its essence, “Daughter” is a moving parable and a potent reminder that if conditions allow, even the most grievously fractured parent-child relationships are not necessarily beyond the potential for reconciliation at the end of life.

You can buy a copy of the film through the information in this link: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/dceradaughter

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