Metro Weekly

Reel Affirmations Review: ‘Prognosis: Notes on Living’

'Prognosis' is a powerful documentary following filmmaker Debra Chasnoff in her two-year battle with a cancer that ends her life.

Prognosis: Notes on Living

There are two kinds of bravery in Prognosis: Notes on Living (★★★★★, CRITIC’S PICK), a documentary following filmmaker Debra Chasnoff in her two-year battle with a cancer that ends her life.

There is her extraordinary choice to allow a camera (even lovingly held by filmmaker friends) into the crisis of terminal illness. And then there is her immense personal bravery as she endures what can only be described as anyone’s worst nightmare.

It’s not easy to watch. There is life-altering news delivered in the dull fluorescence of exam rooms (from oncologists who vary in people skills and apparent empathy) and huge diagnostic machines moving mechanically around as they inscribe Chasnoff’s fate onto digital tablets.

There is the inexorable wasting of her body and then, her mind. But the reason to quash one’s fears and keep watching is the experience of Chasnoff’s measured, profoundly honest account of what it feels like to face one’s impending mortality.

Bringing Chasnoff’s voice to the fore in this way is no small feat. It would have been easier, like most documentaries, to focus on the medical side of the story, playing witness to a life increasingly dominated by unwelcome news, consuming treatments, and failing health.

But Chasnoff and co-director Kate Stilley Steiner maintain a true balance using a careful and calm pacing that always makes space for Chasnoff the person, not the patient. They do this also by treating the camera as a trusted friend. Chasnoff may at times look away for privacy, but more often she will include us, speaking her thoughts aloud, quietly emoting, or turning to look us unswervingly in the eye.

It is a skillfully deployed technique and combined with Mike Shen’s pitch-perfect editing, Chasnoff is devastatingly relatable. She asks every good question, overthinks and knows she’s overthinking, admits to her uncertainty and despair. She also shows us that cancer doesn’t change your sensibilities, dismissing edicts to “stay positive” as short-sighted, and a Chi-Gung and Sound Healing retreat alienating.

Chasnoff’s life with wife Nancy Otto is, of course, upended by the disease and the film also gently captures the evolution of their relationship. Part of keeping Chasnoff so real is showing her immersed in the mundanities of daily life, but also how even the little things begin to change: not just in what she can do, but in how she feels about doing them. As she works in her succulent garden, the conversation with Otto isn’t so much about what she has planned for the garden, but how she feels to be gardening.

Chasnoff is patently aware that she is changing identities into one who is cared for more than anything else. As she says at one point, “I feel like I don’t know who I am.” She is sacred and “really alone in this feeling.” Otto may be ever-patient, resourceful and quietly loving, but Chasnoff cannot take her into the worst of the battle.

If anything is held back, it is more of what must have passed between Chasnoff and her two loving and attentive adult sons. There are some things too private and too dear. The world is not entitled to everything, even in a film that gives so much. 

Prognosis: Notes on Living screens at Landmark’s E Street Cinema on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 6 p.m. ($15 at the door), and is available in the virtual festival through Sunday, Oct. 23, at 11:59 p.m. Click here for details.

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