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”The way people treat me is just as toxic, if not more, than all the really bad chemicals and poisons (Katherine Devoir)

A woman lives alone in a wooden house in the woods, somewhere in Massachusetts. Her house is built of natural substances, her clothes are pure cotton, she is very conscious of what she eats. Social contact is rare. We speak neither of a modern ascetic nor of a retro hermit. Her isolation is not voluntary. She suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a chronic environmental illness, a poisoning by toxins. The severity of the affliction varies, ranging from indispositions to life-threatening conditions, from headaches and nausea, from fatigue and lowered productivity because of nervous system damage, to severe organ impairment. In the past, Katherine was a dancer, a performance artist. Now she is forced to live reclusively, to protect herself from her environment. From people who wear perfume and other scents. These trigger in her serious reactions, such as choking or coughing cramps, ranging from breathlessness to attacks of suffocation. She is forced to protect herself from the synthetic chemicals all around us – in cleaning agents, in the air, in food, in clothing, in furniture, in carpets and so on. If she leaves the house, she should wear a breathing mask to avoid exposure: while driving, for example. A cure for her illness does not exist – the only strategy is avoidance. Katherine Devoir can only live on the margins of society.

In her documentary film Exposed, the New York-based, Austrian video artist Heidrun Holzfeind draws a complex portrait of this 35-year old woman who has been suffering from MCS for the past eleven years. In order to make the film, and to be near Katherine, Holzfeind adapted completely to Katherine’s life. Not only did she need to be completely free of toxins, she also had to consider Katherine’s limited energy resources. Holzfeind accompanied her in her daily routine around the clock, filming her in her daily activities, while shopping, preparing food and medicine, visiting the doctor, working on her computer, dancing, sleeping. In the interview passages, Katherine is often seen lying down, apparently much weakened by these simple tasks.

Exposed starts chronologically: In a short sequence, Katherine tells the story of her life, first over pictures of her childhood and teens, then over moving images documenting her life. Early on, she began filming herself: dancing, driving, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes- images that suggest a normal life. Later, it will be important experiences during her illness that are made immediate and comprehensible through her self-filmed video material. She films herself over and over again. These Hi-8 sequences are found throughout the film, creating authentic reflection. Separated by frames of black, her medical history develops.

As with most MCS patients, it took many years for Katherine's illness to be diagnosed. Diagnosis, however, does not mean recognition. In the cases where school medicine fails, usually social systems and support networks responsible for curing and caring for the ill will fail as well. Katherine is confronted with a lack of understanding, with helplessness and aggression.

The easy and common form of dealing with the ill is to individualize them and to label them as pathological. The forced isolation and the clinical and social handling of people with MCS often leads to the same mental health problems which are then blamed as the source of the illness. It is no wonder that the societal approach to MCS supports certain forms of paranoia. Additionally, one possible effect of some toxins is confusion ("brain fog"), readily fitting a psychological interpretation of the illness.

MCS is an illness primarily affecting women, who are generally easier to stigmatize as mentally ill, whose resistance and struggle is defined as pathological and who are discriminated against as uncomfortable members of society. So it happens that MCS patients are committed to psychiatric wards, that they are called hysterical, paranoid, that their only prescribed cure is therapy, although, as Katherine says in the film, "I did everything. You don’t know how many times I analyzed my childhood… I did everything except look at my environment."

Katherine describes years of misdiagnosis as her health deteriorates until she reaches a point where she courageously and desperately decides that she can no longer trust anything except her own instincts, her intuition, that she can depend only on herself. At this point in the film, we witness for the first time one of Katherine’s self-documented psychological crisis. Like the diary films of the American filmmaker Charlotte Robertson, with her motto "A film a day keeps the doctor away", Katherine’s video recordings also fulfill a therapeutic function. She films herself, among other things, in times of psychological stress, during choking fits, washing her hair outside in wintertime, dancing. With the gesture and limited means of amateur filmmaking, accompanied by her own voice oscillating between confusion, rage, the fatigue of the illness and passionate resistance, these unpretentious images go under the skin.

Through the direct address to the camera the viewer is uncompromisingly included, creating not only empathy but also an inescapable connection. The camera is the only conversation partner left. It is deliberately asked to witness her illness. A documented telephone conversation allows us to experience (with Katherine) that not even her boyfriend understands the degree of her illness, nor can he cope with the hopelessness of her situation in any way.

Heidrun Holzfeind places those sequences recorded by Katherine herself (where her artistic role as a performer finds a kind of continuity) between reflective and analytical interview passages, bringing us ever closer to Katherine’s desperate state. Through the collaboration with Holzfeind, the self-filmed sequences appear to be a dialogue with the filmmaker, at the same time a "window to the world", a possibility to communicate with a world inaccessible to an MCS patient. Herewith emerges a sliver of hope, at a point when there is no longer any time or energy left to use her body, her ravaged one-time artistic medium, for dance. Resting, waiting and speaking until the day it might get better.

Katherine speaks to Heidrun Holzfeind about her illness, her situation and her critique of American society. Despite the density of narration and the growing personal immediacy of Katherine's fate, Holzfeind manages to maintain distance through found footage sequences and quotes from scientific research and television images that provide additional information about the illness and its spread. The attempt to work against an individualized pathology, even stylistically, broadens the scope from a single "case history" to a widespread illness of the 21st century.

Heidrun Holzfeind interrupts her portrait of Katherine three times with these montage sequences, contextualizing Katherine's illness in a social and (above all) political context. She begins the film with a collage of advertising images with happy perfume-spraying women and new inventions. Regarding our society’s blind faith in progress, a voice promises, "This world belongs to us all. It is yours to explore, your new frontier." The ambiguous word "frontier" in the context of MCS becomes the insurmountable border, becomes exclusion. Katherine describes it like this: "The psychology of the human being is to fit in and to be part of culture. We want to have friends, to participate, to be useful – and when you get sick like this all this is taken away…"

The second excursion collects news and documentary images about pollution, untested chemicals released on the market and G.W. Bush statements about the impracticalities of environmental politics, ironically accompanied by a brief image of the ideal family. The third montage examines the dangers of toxins in household products through an interview with a toxicologist, whose comments to experiments with white mice (some deadly) confirm the poison level of cleaning products and carpets.

Out of all these pieces, Heidrun Holzfeind weaves a dense net of images and information, emotions and reflections over this (ever yet) puzzling and controversial illness. The grief, the resignation, but also the willingness to fight and the absurd, nearly comic situations of coming to terms show finally an image of a woman who is not willing to give up and therefore signals hope. Heidrun Holzfeind, who mostly works on the border between documentary film and art, succeeds not only in creating an in-depth portrait of Katherine and the history of her illness but also – through the high level of reflection about the illness and its effects – in making a founded social critique.

MCS is recognized in Exposed as a social phenomena and as a social problem, in contrast to the impressive fiction feature Safe (USA, 1995) by Todd Haynes, where a young American housewife and mother falls successively more and more ill due to MCS, is not taken seriously or understood by her surroundings, enters a deep depression, and seeks help at a therapy center that is run by a New Age guru. In her highly sterile isolation, she is unreachable to her husband and child. Haynes handles this escape into New Age therapy as a dangerous comfort, in which every person still remains responsible for his or her own condition. Completely differently in Exposed, we encounter a sometimes very fierce, self-determined, socially critical Katherine Devoir, who, in a pleasantly cheerful closing scene at the dump, quite happily recycles her trash and thereby signals action as the last meaningful consequence.

(Translation by Micah Magee)