Ondrea Barbe’s Constant Fleeting
An eight-year-old boy is seen against the reflective surface of a car window. In the soft angles of his profile one can make out the shadow of trees––pines, thousands of them––stretching back to the horizon and rising up like the gentle giants in his storybooks. The boy and his mother travel on a serpentine Northern California highway to the mother’s childhood home to collect the ashen remains of the boy’s grandmother. The boy’s eyes remain open and fixed on the immortal landscape as he asks questions about the transience of the human body and the existence of the soul.
In Ondrea Barbe’s Constant Fleeting (2018), the filmmaker chronicles her urgent reconciliation with her alcoholic mother before her mother’s untimely death from breast cancer in 2014. Utilizing various forms of media––including home movies, video diaries, old audio cassette recordings, phone calls and photographs––this feature-length documentary examines alcoholism, death, maternal love and memory-keeping from a perspective that is uniquely familial and feminine.
Set on the periphery of the El Dorado National Forest, the city of Pollock Pines (pop. 6,871) lies in a veritable no-man’s land between the smoggy congestion of Sacramento and the cool blue of Lake Tahoe. From 2011 to early 2014, Barbe and her son, Cory, traveled there to document her mother’s declining health as she underwent chemotherapy. The resulting footage draws tight their complex mother/daughter binary while also posing questions about the authority and authenticity in those persuasive storytelling tools, memory and memento.
The film also functions as a document of the filmmaker’s own transition into family life and motherhood. The birth of her son Cory has a bifurcating effect on Barbe in that it forces her to confront lurking memories of a chaotic and abusive childhood while also serving as the impetus for her mom getting sober for the first time in her life. Her mother’s capacity for healthy parental love is revived through her grandson’s birth and for one remarkable (and fleeting) moment, both women experience the joy of starting all over again.
Core to Barbe’s documentary process is her reliance on the camera as witness/confessor/protector. In its most potent incarnation––as pencil of nature––the camera grants the filmmaker the emotional and psychological distance to prove her childhood trauma as real and material, not invented, as her parents would have her believe. There! There is the detritus of her mother’s life: the magazines, the stacks of pillows, the photo albums––piled haphazardly like the accumulation of so many wasted days, like so many un-reconciled memories. The tension Barbe creates visually between her mother’s dark and cluttered interior and the rugged expanse of the outside world serves as an accurate metaphor for the film’s own leitmotif: the struggle to release the trauma of the past and embrace the beauty of the right now.
Reflective surfaces–– car windows, bubbles, lake surfaces, empty glass jars–– feature prominently throughout the documentary and are self-conscious references to the medium of photography itself. They also offer the viewer a deeper insight into the filmmaker’s interior life. Through these photogenic spectra, Barbe allows her most intimate feelings about hope, forgiveness death and the human soul to become manifest.
Barbe highlights the revelatory nature of photography, as it exists in Constant Fleeting:
In photography, there is a latent image, an image you capture on film but is invisible and only emerges when you shine the right light on it. For me, childhood seems to have the same process. I have been imprinted with so many memories early on, but it is only after time that I am able to understand their meaning.
Barbe’s relationship with her dying mother is prismatic and impossible to hold––like the morning sunlight that breaks suddenly (one might say miraculously) through the heavy curtain of a Nor Cal fog to play on the surface of her camera. Indeed, one can see Constant/Fleeting as a kind of allegorical story about Mother as Sun––a once life-giving star that becomes obscured by fear and disease. However, there is triumph in this parable as the star is finally able to shed her gloom and bring loving light to those who orbit gently around her. In this way, Constant/Fleeting is more than a mother/daughter documentary––it is a filmic guide to end-of-life miracles.
––Amber Power is a NY-based arts writer.