Fantastic Fest 2019: NIGHT HAS COME is a Beautiful and Poignant Meditation on the Essence of Memory

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Review By: Jason Oliver

Every now and then I see a film that crawls on my skin, gets inside my brain, then takes up residence for a few weeks. During this period of gestation I’m unable to give anything else my full attention. The film demands a part of me for as long as it nests. The nesting period lasts about as long as my obsession and the obsession is fueled by the aesthetic joy or curiosity the film transfers to me.  In this way we are like mutually symbiotic parasites. The film requires my attention and I’m more than willing to give it. Eventually we use each other up and the space in my brain is free to consume and obsess over the next thing. 

The next thing right now is Peter Van Goethem’s NIGHT HAS COME. For me to meld with this film is even more curious because in many ways symbiosis is a central theme where the relationship between memory and humanity as well as the relationship between narrative, images, emotions, and creativity are thoroughly explored. 

NIGHT HAS COME is a 55 minute fictional film which derives the story via three major components: music, a scripted voice over narration, and archival stock footage courtesy of the Royal Belgian Film Archive. The archival footage is edited together to fit the narrative or perhaps it was the other way around. The basic story is from the perspective of an old man recounting the fractures of his memory and the virus that caused it. In an assumed distant future, a virus dubbed “The Night” has spread and infected the populace. It started in children and slowly stripped away their memories until only “The Night” is left in their vacuous minds. Mass hysteria, panic, riots, government intervention and conspiracy all spread as quickly as the virus. The government develops a way to harvest and store memories as a cure to stop the disease, but suspicion as to the government’s true intentions stirs as well.

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Van Goethem collected and edited the footage that composes the film while working on his Doctorate of Arts at the University of Brussels.  One can easily imagine him looking through these filmed memories with a measure of nonrecognition. As if they were of a time unremembered yet preserved. That perhaps we have forgotten them because we have forgotten everything only to start over and preserve a new history in their stead. The old man narrator is, by extension, Van Goethem himself, trying to make sense of the fragmented memories before him, unable to give them any names or context. He may even doubt they are real at all.

Watching NIGHT HAS COME is an experience that evokes the similar themes and aesthetic of documentarian Bill Morrison. His films DECASIA ( a meditation on the decomposition of film and thus the preservation of memory itself), THE MINER’S HYMN (a silent film composed of archival footage scored to the music of the late great Johann Johannsson which tells the story of the slow deterioration of Northeast England’s mining communities), and DAWSON CITY: FROZEN IN TIME (a generally straight forward documentary about the discovery of hundreds of film reels, remnants of the Klondike Gold Rush, found in the frozen ground deep in the Yukon) all come to mind. In regard to the latter, it’s likely that the events in Dawson City were the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s mockumentary FORGOTTEN SILVER

On first viewing, NIGHT HAS COME takes some acclimating. It feels more lyrical than narrative and it’s easy to let your mind wander while the images and music wash over you. Guy Van Nueten’s hypnotic piano heavy score is impossible to shake, not that you’d want to. I needed a second viewing to allow myself to really pay attention to the words of our narrator to hear his story. Eventually music, images, and narration all click together and when it does, it’s almost like the prestige of a magic trick. It becomes apparent that even in the sparseness of the narrative, there is so much to unwind. 

My first impression was that the “Night” is a disease like Alzheimer’s and the film is a way to understand more completely the ravaging effects it has on the human mind and those around it. It’s a disease that so completely strips away your memory to the point that you can no longer remember how to use the basic motor functions that sustain your life. Our narrator contemplates the nature of memory and his frustration with his inability to remember even basic things. He also speaks briefly that this condition allows a fleeting freedom where if you are to remove someone’s desire and longing, you also take away their fear. It’s a poignant thought that the root of fear is the thought of losing what you care about, and that what you care about is preserved by your memory. But then, can our own memories even be trusted and what value do they have if not? The narrator asks “was I a happy child?” But do any of us really remember or can we sum up an entire childhood as “happy” or “sad”? He also articulates a despair in being forgotten. Perhaps this sentiment is what causes us to photograph in the first place. To this the narrator speaks about a “…feeling that we live to forget everything and to be forgotten…quietly.”

The fragility of memory is of course at the heart of the film, but there’s also a meta narrative in that our memories can be taken out of their original context and reconstructed to tell any number of stories, even used as propaganda to influence others. In this latter context, NIGHT HAS COME is both a cautionary tale and a vehicle of manipulation. And really, how great is that?

NIGHT HAS COME ends with a supposition as the narrator contemplates his death. It works both as a plot twist and as a spiritual philosophy: the symbiosis of life and death. He posits that “maybe everything will begin again. Maybe everything began again, long ago.” It leaves me chilled, stunned, and very much unsettled, while the parasite in my brain remains nested still.

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