Directed by James Porter and Hanni Witt | Review by Prarthana MitraDirectorial duo James Winton Porter and Hanni Witt reserve a high praise for their seven-minute cinematic exercise Biology, with the help of an extraordinary screenplay. The clever cuts and unsettling arrangement of its montage-like scenes elevate the short film from just another morbid tale of grief, memory and loss, to an experimental take on the phrase “till death do us part”.
As the story goes, Jessica, played by Witt herself, is a middle-aged woman who we see only in snatches of her husband’s memory of her. We learn soon enough that this woman, once lively and vivacious, is now terminally ill and on the brink of death. It is also pretty evident that Sam (played by Porter) finds it hard, almost impossible, to accept.
Sharply cutting across the kaleidoscope of memories and lived experiences, the film charts Jessica’s disease, diagnosis, deterioration and her subsequent dementia. There is poignancy, poetry and poise in how the actor-directors handle the delicate subject; not with philosophical dialogues on the nature of life and death, but with action that affirms their love and marriage vows. It is in the biological responses to impending death like feeling the sunshine on your skin, shaky nerves keeping you from pouring wine, and saving the last dance for each other. Innocuous moments that you wish lasted, and blame yourself for not noticing them before.
The story is told from the perspective of Sam, portraying him as an equal shareholder in Jessica’s suffering. The knowledge that he cannot outrun death is evident in his frustration and helplessness, as he becomes an unwitting spectator to his wife’s long and drawn out dying. As nature runs its course of growth and decay, the question is how one deals with the idea of absence? Or as in Sam’s case, how far is he willing to go to defy time and quell grief?
James Winton Porter’s sparse writing makes the journey more experiential than meditative. The suspense created by his non-linear screenplay is further heightened by a sharp edit and a sonorous background score.
Speaking of cinematography, Cosmo-Porter Witt’s camerawork is static at times and shaky at others, capturing the protagonists in stark colours and precise silhouettes. But personally speaking, a more conscious composition and further stylisation in post could have enhanced the look and feel of the movie. Nonetheless, the typically digital tones capture the action like a home video, as most of it takes place indoors.
Set in urban Australia, Porter and Witt’s film, however, is characteristically and recognizably universal. Despite the lack of visual depth and a low-budget style of filmmaking, Biology strikes a chord and manages to conjure a fleeting sense of mortality with abrasive honesty and rigour. Nominated for Changing Face International Film Festival 2018, this film is a genuine attempt at telling stories that both of directors seem to deeply identify with.
Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.