‘HALLUCINATIONS’ by Suki Chan – reviewed

Credit: Suki Chan

What we see in Suki Chan’s ‘HALLUCINATIONS’ is inarguably the purest expression of the stories guiding this short film about having dementia and caring for those who do. Four women were interviewed, and their most moving and introspective sound bites have been extracted and reassembled to play harmonies with the film’s incredible footage.

We don’t know if the women portrayed are connected by anything other than the film and the disease, an ambiguity which benefits the hallucinatory style Chan clearly has in mind. There are links, however, mainly related to the similarities between the experiences they describe. Both sides – the women living with dementia and the carers – acknowledge the tendency of the disease to create two worlds: reality and the altered reality. “I’m in their world,” one of the carers says, talking about her work, “because they don’t understand ours anymore.”

Anyone who has seen dementia take hold of someone close to them knows how strangely uncomplicated this statement is. Whether it’s you or a loved one who is unable to distinguish between the two worlds, both parties are dragged into the disease’s unrelenting distortions. And what Chan uses to bind us to these intimate and familiar accounts of living with dementia is profound and stimulating artistry.

Upfront, there are two screens which play side by side, and at times the pictures loosely interpret the symptoms of the disease. In a lingering sequence, two trees shimmer reflected in a pond, while one of the interviewees discusses how she always tries to see the positive in bad situations. For her, dementia has made her appreciate how important it is to notice the small details which are often overlooked when life is busy.

One of the women talks about the gradual disintegration of her ability to remember simple words. We see beautiful garden flowers, captured so delicately that the motion slows your breathing. But what seems like a superficial accompaniment to this woman’s story is given meaning when she pauses, a bouquet of red-stained white peonies breaking into the frame, and says: “I’ve seen my dad in the garden, and it wasn’t frightening. It was comforting.”

Credit: Suki Chan

Fear is totally absent. Their new world may be different, but they’re not scared. “I’m not afraid… I’ve lost any fear I’ve ever had.” Only the carers sound highly distressed by what they’ve seen. The final verse begins with the rear-view of a canal boat in the right hand screen, and one of the carers recalls her most bizarre encounter with the terrible other world dementia can create at its worst. She says, “You think to yourself: my gosh, what must that woman be seeing?” For the first time, the two screens play the same note, and the boat, duplicated, passes into an endless tunnel.

In the devastating final monologue we hear one woman’s conflicted view of assisted suicide, and her resolute tone is a much-needed shock to Chan’s pace. Getting lost in that altered world is too painful when we think about people affected by dementia in our own lives: where they were when we last saw them, or where they might be that moment; believing they’re a child again, or that they’re in a market overflowing with exotic fruits, just like the one playing on the television in their room.

Maybe it’s best our loved ones are not aware of our reality near the end, because then their world can be as real for them as ours is for us, and we can hope the hallucinations are a comfort rather than a frightening dream. Chan can rely on us to make these connections, but with ‘HALLUCINATIONS’ she unravels what we know and stitches together something new.

You can find out more about Suki Chan’s brilliant ‘HALLUCINATIONS’ on her website. The Bluecoat made the film available at the end of May as part of an exclusive preview of Chan’s ‘CONSCIOUS’ project, which they hope to bring to Liverpool in 2021.