P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
TIFF 2018: There is no simple solution, no doctor’s prescription that can cure the terminal illness called life. The certain yet unknown destination of the sorry little path we must all cut across this Earth is the cross we bear all our lives, the immutable centrepiece of the whole cosmic-human tragedy. Dour study of mortality Erik Poppe’s Per Fugelli – siste resept («last prescription») may be, but it’s also a moving eulogy to the fabulous splendour of our sickening lives, in all their pain and joy and unfathomable mystery.
For Norwegians the documentary performs the trick of rendering the familiar unfamiliar, and forcing them to think – and even think again. For Per Fugelli is dying and, in this country, Per Fugelli is a household name. The doctor and Professor of Social Medicine had been the darling of the Left, scourge of the Right, an inspiration to some, an annoyance to others, but at any rate impossible to ignore.
He is one of the most prolific contributors to those bread-and-butter issues, which seem to preoccupy the chattering classes: what’s right; what’s wrong; who are ‘we’; who do we want to be? His commentaries have littered the papers, his books all the prominent display-cases. For better or worse, Per Fugelli is part of the cultural landscape that is Norway, in life as well as death.
Quite early in the film we see Fugelli at a large social gathering, and we watch him, in a revealing moment, withdraw to sit alone with his thoughts. His own words place the moment in perspective: he concedes that the ‘social’ is the first thing to suffer in the face of death. The meeting with one’s own mortality squeezes out all the space one customarily fills with casual acquaintances and their chitchat.
The scene is a good illustration of the nature of the struggle, which we will follow almost to the moment of its oh so natural conclusion. Life will change in the face of its coming extinction. Through Erik Poppe’s work we are invited to bear witness (not always an easy task) to Fugelli’s efforts to live well, do well – and do good – in the face of all the challenges life, and especially death, may throw in his path. It’s hard not to be moved by this struggle, and to sympathise with the man, regardless of whether we sympathise with his views or public role.
The condemned man is a strange beast. He comes into a focus so sharp you could cut yourself on his edges, and yet, by some strange gallows’ irony, he is more brimming with life than anyone, burning bright like a roman candle at the very brink of its extinction. Per Fugelli lived with terminal cancer for years, eventually refusing further treatment when it became clear this could not save his life, only prolong it. Then, as the illness tightened its grip, for a year or more until his death last September, Poppe and film-crew followed him to document his ‘final days.’
What do we see? We see a man who is a little self-absorbed (but can at least admit it) with a mischievous sense of humour and a passionate love of life – and not just his own. He demonstrates his love for the living, breathing social fabric, for the great weal of life, which encircles our teeming planet. Life surrounds and embraces him in all its beauty, be it the exquisite musical and emotional register of the choir from Røst, or the breathtaking landscape in which they and their little town are nested.
It’s time for a confession. The film was not an easy journey for me as a mild hypochondriac. It was full of the things I generally avoid, like detailed descriptions of the workings and symptoms of fatal medical problems. My reaction of mild terror, excessive as it may be, illustrates a more general problem or pathology shared by most of ‘us,’ as creatures of Western culture. Death may be our greatest taboo, hidden away as it is in its sealed coffins and mortuary drawers. There is no more essential part of life, yet we prefer to see it and think about it as little as possible. In this respect, the film poses an important question: Is our flight from death also a kind of flight from life?
If the culture of avoidance translates readily, as it may, into one of insecurity and even paranoia, what does this say about contemporary political conditions – not least the rise of a kind of mean spirited individualism, coupled with a circle-the-wagons-style national xenophobia? As Per Fugelli came to realise, there is no absolute security, no perfect safety, but, by the same token, there’s no point in giving in to fear. We can afford to be generous and will be all the stronger for that. There is a fortitude we draw from human solidarity with all our brother and sisters – whatever their creed or colour. That’s why Fugelli argued we should strengthen rather than erode our welfare state and open rather than close our doors to refugees and other migrants. And that’s why he fought tooth and nail against his own fear and despair in the face of his approaching death.
Both the courage and the touching vulnerability of this man are brought into focus by some assured filmmaking. Towards the end, we watch him falter in the face of the pain and hopelessness, and we can only feel for him. How can we begrudge him his human frailty? Indeed, his weaknesses only underscore his courage and integrity, which are their natural foils. For riven from any human context, such ‘virtues’ devolve into empty platitudes instead of clarion calls to the battle for survival, for the preservation, through thick and thin, of a sense of self and meaningful connection to others. We need courage because we are afraid, integrity because we are craven.
In this way, the work achieves a powerful polemic through its visual storytelling: to shield oneself from those who seem different, or from those who might place demands upon us, is to give in to fear and, most important, to impoverish our own lives. This, I believe, together with the heightening effect of a striking visualisation of the beautiful environment in which Fugelli has thrived all his life, is the film’s greatest virtue. Hence, we can be sanguine about its imperfections. These are mostly associated with the loss of perspective that may come from getting so close to one’s subject.
When films become a little too didactic, it’s invariably reflected in the soundtrack and its musical score. It’s a thin line between setting the mood and signalling what we, the audience, are supposed to feel. Interestingly, one of the most powerful scenes is also the most intrinsically musical, where the town choir furtively assemble to spring a surprise performance on their ailing friend. Here the musical and emotional registers effect a perfect, spontaneous harmony. At the risk of carping about a near perfect scene, I wonder if its already formidable power could not have been further amplified with the help of a little more sonic space around it.
Fugelli was a sympathetic but critical commentator on Norwegian society (after all, he is one of their own). He loved Norway, and wanted his country to be the best it could be. In these terms the film, among other things, becomes a vehicle for more of his brand of admirably constructive criticism. True to his own argumentative spirit, we should nevertheless not balk at raising some issues. We should dare to criticise the critique. So here goes…
In one telling scene Fugelli stops outside an Oslo meeting-place for Somali men and delivers a short but heartfelt speech. Of course, we can question the way they stick together at the risk of holding themselves apart, and, especially, the way they exclude women from their meeting-place, but we should neverthleless be patient. ‘Don’t wade in there and tell them they have to do things differently,’ Fugelli exhorts us for – in time, they will become more like us.
On one level, this is a timely and valuable message. Sociologically speaking, he is absolutely correct. The hysteria about immigration ignores the reality that tendencies towards assimiliation, especially from second generation onwards, are much more powerful than any efforts to preserve an expat culture. On another level, he perpetuates a familiar ethical-political problem, which we could call the problem of toleration. It’s especially familiar to me, perhaps, coming from Britain with its longstanding imperial tradition of toleration.
The point of departure for toleration is a sense of superiority and, on a deeper level, inflexibility. We tolerate others because, out of consideration for how different they are, we reserve judgement, but a judgement reserved has also implicitly already been made. The reason we feel a need to tolerate something (rather than embrace it or even just let it be) is because we have already recognised it as transgressive or inferior. The unstated presupposition of Fugelli’s rousing speech is his own and Norway’s self-evident superiority.
What is important, in this context, is not whether he is right or wrong – in any case, this is a very difficult question to answer. What is important is the kind of approach to difference implied: outsiders must be given time to become like us, exactly like us, to become completely assimilated to our more or less perfect and therefore entirely static way of life. Another idea thus gets lost along the way, the idea of integration. Human society is dynamic. Whether we like it or not, it will change, but it is a kind of fearful pathology, and/or extraordinary complacency, to believe that all such change is necessarily bad – or intolerable.
Outsiders will come and adapt to us, the insiders, just as we, over time, will adapt to them. Yes! Get used to it! Somehow, we will learn to live together in the new and quite possibly improved Norway or Britain (or whatever country it may be) of the future. If there’s one lesson we should learn from Per Fugelli – siste resept, I believe it is this: the future is coming whether we like it or not, so embrace it, make the best of it, and dare to be the best we possibly, humanly can be. I think Per Fugelli (1943-2017) did his best, and I respect him for that. Now it’s our turn…