Carlo Guillermo Proto is young, mesmerised and silent at Mont-Royal Metro station in Montreal. Train after train he should catch passes, but he can’t move. This has been happening for over an hour. Spellbound by the sound of a cappella Motown classics ringing over thunderous, rattling carriages, he is faced with three buskers who will change his life forever: the Harting family. Denis, the father, sings with beauty and pain like he’s never heard; daughter Lauviah sways, waiting for her turn; matriarch, Peggy, stands attentively holding a piece of string tucked into the change bucket. This is to keep track of donations – all three members of the Harting family are completely blind.
This train station is where Chilean-Canadian filmmaker Carlo first met the Hartings. Yet more than a decade later, the family of buskers' magnitude has not dwindled in his mind. As a result, he’s spent the past five years filming them for documentary Resurrecting Hassan. In short, the Hartings, who are now a three, were once a four. As a sighted child of two parents born blind, their son Hassan was a miracle. Yet tragically at the age of six, on a beach trip with nursery, he drowned in the sea. The film then joins the family 15 years on, when Hassan’s father has a dream containing a message from his deceased son. From there, Carlos tracks the family’s quest to resurrect their child using the methods of Kazakhstani spiritual healer and mathematician, Grigory Grabavoy – a man who claims to have the ability to abolish death, resurrect the dead, cure cancer and AIDS, and teleport, among other things. You know: the usual shit, where reality and fantasy collide into one unbelievable tale.
Yet sat in a static theatre after the London Film Festival screening, the subdued atmosphere of the post-film Q&A makes me feel as though Resurrecting Hassan means very different things to different people. For some, it might be a film about grief. For others, the breakdown of a volatile relationship. I, personally, have never felt lonelier in a cinema. I wasn’t right for days. Despite being a film about buskers, it felt like a religious experience had been thrust upon me. “It makes you confront things that you don’t want to confront,” Carlo says, when we speak over Skype, after the screening. “But sometimes you have to force yourselves through listening or watching something, not because you’re fanatical or curious – but because it’s touching something that takes a working effort to try and digest. That’s part of why I made the film. As lonely as you felt in that cinema, I’ve felt equally lonely travelling with the film.”
Regardless of my own experience, however, the one constant interpretation of Resurrecting Hassan is that it captures the burden and vitality of music in a way that’s never been done before. Considering the current climate of music films – think musicals like La La Land or the relentless conveyor belt of biopics – Resurrecting Hassan is a unique exploration into not only music but how we react it to, and with it, as people. A large part of this is down to its subjects. Since they’re blind, the Harting family access the world through sound in a literal sense. And because Denis refuses to accept welfare and they can’t work, busking is also their sole source of income – one of the few avenues available to a family in dire need of money.
“Music is something that chose them; they didn’t choose it. It allows them to exist independently in the world,” Carlo explains. When the Harting family busk, it naturally means everything to them – without receiving money in exchange for their tunes, they may go hungry for the night. As a result the film is consistently threaded with situations of vulnerability, many of which act as a catalyst for moments of purity and honesty, leading to crescendos and brutal arguments between the family that move the story and shape their lives. In one scene, for example, Denis’ voice is struggling and splitting on higher notes. It’s unbelievably tense, until Peggy eventually decides to clap Denis’ version of “Blue Velvet” to an early close. With busking as a gateway to their livelihood, the clash that follows is gruelling – leading to confrontation about money, their pursuit of their dead son, and questions over their relationship as a whole.
“The best thing you can do with someone with quote unquote 'disabilities,' is just treat them as people. Don't treat them as rejects."
The family aren’t the only ones whose emotions are spiked by these rough yet beautiful moments and not everybody responds to the Hartings in as positive a way as Carlo and I did. In a call to me, Denis recounts occasions where people would scream things like, “go find a gun and shoot yourself,” or “you should go back to your day job” at his family in the street. Faced with drunks, addicts and the mentally unstable has made life, at times, frightening for the Harting family. Similarly, according to Carlo, many who have watched the film find themselves incapable of confronting the reality of the situation: they’re happy to see the story unfold on screen, but when faced with the Harting family in real life there’s an awkward sense of unease.
When Resurrecting Hassan was shortlisted for the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the family decided to busk outside the theatre in order to make ends meet – a scene which Carlo tells me made some viewers uncomfortable. “Even the liberals and the converted and the jurors who love documentaries and champion them, they like the veil of the big screen to be between them. They’re OK hearing stories about refugees in Syria, but if that soldier with PTSD or if that family are begging when they come out of the cinema, they don’t want to be confronted [by the reality],” he explains. “That in itself was an unintentional performance piece: you come out the cinema and see these people busking on the street.”
“I saw the reactions. There were people who were abhorred by [the family busking outside]. I felt that something had shifted with people when they saw this film, then there were people who were unequivocally disgusted by it.” Carlo continues, becoming audibly frustrated. “This family maintain themselves as the underdog, because they see themselves as the underdog and they see themselves as rebellious. And I think that idea of existing and being in public is a sort of ‘fuck you’ to pretty much anybody who sees them. It’s a total feat in their existence because of all the things they’ve been through.”
If you’re detecting defensiveness from Carlo, you’re right. At the Q&A in London he became choked up replying to an audience member who questioned whether making the film was a good idea for the family, whether it would be healthier to let them do this thing alone. With the bare, exposed vulnerability and vociferousness of grief and the troubling places they’re taken to in front of our eyes, I can understand this consideration. There's perhaps this tension between being a voyeur, but ultimately being entertained from a comfortable distance. That said, Carlo meets the suggestion head on, saying that anything other than this would be robbing them of their humanity. “The best thing you can do with someone with quote unquote 'disabilities,' is just treat them as people. Get angry with them like you would anybody else, love them like you would anybody else, and just treat them as fucking people. Don’t treat them as rejects.”
He knows the Hartling family despise pity since, over the past 12 years, he’s become close friends with them. This level of intimacy has enabled him to capture deeply private moments like the fits of laughter between Denis and daughter Lauvia when they play their celebrity quiz game, “Fuck one, marry one, throw one in the river”. Equally, he’s been part of brutal arguments, coming to blows with Peggy over demands to start re-shooting the documentary after four years; calling out Denis and demanding he go to therapy instead of a spiritual healer to confront his aggression; and subsequently holding Denis in his arms as he cries. The more Carlo reveals to me, the clearer it becomes that he’s almost been ingratiated into the family and their culture of ‘all or nothing’ clashes. He’s living the objective of ‘extreme empathy’ at the heart of his filmmaking. “I feel like true change will happen if you form some sort of extreme empathy in the work that you’re creating. I’m an old anarchist; I used to go to protests, but then I got to a point in my life where I just decided to my head down and started creating work where it could inspire some change in people internally.”
Living as this experiment and a state of extreme empathy, what is the most important thing he’s taken from the Hartings? “The tenacity; perseverance. Any time I feel challenged by something, I think, if they can get through that, I should be able to get through this. They’re an inspiration,” Carlo pauses. “If you thought the film was intense, I could have made this film unbearable for you. The fact that they exist, are not alcoholics, haven’t committed suicide or aren’t drug addicts, is a fucking feat of its own. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this film: that survival, that tenacity. I can never repay them for that. That’s why I tried to capture them in the most honest way I could.”
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‘Resurrecting Hassan’ had its UK premiere at the BFI Film Festival 2017; it was released in Canada on 22 September. Keep updated with the film via its English language Facebook page here .