‘We left the cemetery and drove through the town. Main Street was full of abandoned buildings and century-old architecture. The only place populated seemed to be the local bar. The city mourned with Dane. This is not an odd relationship in Tarkio. The dead seem to mingle seamlessly with the living. The dying buildings are filled with kind people, knowingly caring for their terminally sick community. The college died in the early nineties, ashamed and bankrupt. The famous “Mule Barn Theatre” my father ran during his stint at the college, burned down in the early nineties. Tarkio is replete with buildings that collectively tell a story of loss and unfulfilled dreams.’ – Torben Bernhard, 2011
‘They have simply gone on ahead:
they will not wish to return home.
We’ll catch up to them on those hills
in the sunshine!
The day is fair on those hills.’ – Translation of Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866)
When a child dies, especially so young and so suddenly, the words don’t come in the same way when a parent or another loved one passes. It always is a struggle to regain those words – to be able finally to express and to let others know that in his long absence his presence remains still so strong. There is always that promise or hope – no matter how many years have passed and regardless of the physical crumbling of bricks and mortar – of the lesson and gift of his presence.
In ‘Tarkio Balloon,’ a five-minute film of fragile poetry, Utah filmmaker Torben Bernhard goes back to a cemetery in a small Missouri town where his brother, Dane, is buried. In 1985, when Bernhard was 2, his two-month-old brother died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Shot on 8-MM film and incorporating excerpts from an audio interview recorded years earlier with his mother (Janae), ‘Tarkio Balloon’ gives visibility to all parents who lost a child.
Bernhard’s film will have its Utah premiere on Saturday, Aug. 20, at 7 p.m. in the Tower Theatre (876 E 900 S) as part of the Salt Lake City Film Festival. The short is paired with the feature-length documentary ‘Better This World,’ by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, an impressive piece of investigative journalism going to the surprising background story of how two young men from Texas ended up facing charges of domestic terrorism.
‘Tarkio Balloon’ received its premiere earlier this year at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. It was one of seven films selected for the mini-documentary competition.
The inspiration for the film came to Bernhard at last year’s Cinequest in San Jose, California, where The Sonosopher, the excellent experimental documentary (co-directed with Travis Low) about Alex Caldiero, was being screened. Although it had been 25 years since his infant brother’s tragic death, Bernhard’s mind flooded with memories of Dane and his own challenging attempts as a two-year-old brother trying to understand why his brother had gone away and wondering if he would ever come back. Before returning to Thailand, where he was working on other film projects, Bernhard and his wife Marissa drove from Utah to Tarkio, where he had not been for more than 20 years, to locate Dane’s grave and to see what had become of the town. “It felt like stepping into a myth. My mind sought to contrive the experience. It wanted me to make sense of the experience, structure it like an aimless road trip movie, where I leave my journey, resurrected by exhaled breath making ashes dance again in scattered procession,” Bernhard writes. “But, being isn’t tidy. At least, not from my experience. Being is, well, being.”
Bernhard’s poetic imagery is immensely moving in its stark simplicity. The film opens with a vivid shot of the hills leading into the town. The viewer can imagine easily the bitter cold, slate gray skies which greeted Bernhard and his wife as they moved through the cemetery to find Dane’s grave and document the remnants of a once-vibrant town that had forgotten itself as much as it had forgotten the Bernhard family had ever lived there. Layered among the imagery are the poignant recollections of Bernhard’s mother.
In the space of a few minutes, Bernhard imparts a profound message about our individual challenges in questioning our prevailing social assumptions on the basis of how each of us sees what gives our lives meaning and value. In our contemporary society, the idea of losing a child still seems so rare to many people. However, when it does occur, the grieving parent eventually may be shunned or even ostracized if the grieving continues beyond some norm of appropriate grieving time. Societal expectations of grieving norms are predicated on healing as if one can heal from grief as they would from a cut, wound, or injury.
Bernhard’s film reaffirms that the pain of loss never goes away nor does the memory of a lost child’s presence. As for the pilgrimage, he writes: ‘There is so much to say. There is so much I have left out. My only desire is that I have somehow left breadcrumbs for a future self to find his way back to Tarkio.’
The film is part of Bernhard’s ‘Lost and Found’ project, comprising five short films running under 15 minutes each and representing different angles and settings (Utah, Missouri, and Thailand) that yet carry through the theme suggested by the series’ title. Among the other films is ‘Boomtown,’ co-directed by Travis Low and which documents the vanishing of a southwestern Utah town which flourished in the late 1800s with the discovery of gold and other precious metals at the Horn Silver Mine. ‘Trash Collector’ explores the life of Chaan, a man living in a slum along the train tracks that snake through Nakhorn Ratchasima (Korat) en route to the northeast region of Thailand. Bernard’s wife Marissa is directing ‘Thailand Cowboy,’ a fascinating look into a Thai man who lives to fuel his passion for American westerns and the romanticized personalities of that genre including John Wayne and John Ford. The fifth film – ‘The Gospel According to Ralphael’ – is about a Salt Lake City man who has transformed a shabby warehouse into a museum of enormous concrete and steel sculptures, paintings, murals, and ceiling frescoes that synthesize his religious beliefs taken from traditional and personal interpretations of many theological foundations.
Bernhard has launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign here. The goal is $5,000 which must be accomplished by the end of business on Sept. 18 in order to be funded. A pair of trailers featuring the filmmakers and the stories is below.
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