Hot Docs 2023 Review: ANGEL APPLICANT Reveals the Art of Survival
Ken A. Meyer directed, created an emotionally engaging, culturally relevant, and socially influential double portrait of artist Paul Klee and himself, dealing with the same disease.
Ken August Meyer stands behind and in front of the camera in the introspective and deeply personal film Angel Applicant, which explores the life and work of Swiss-German painter Paul Klee against the progression of the director's condition of a rare and life-threatening disease, systemic scleroderma. Klee, like Meyer, suffered from the same condition, and it has informed his signature style to a large degree.
Meyer, who initially never intended to be in front of the camera, becomes an integral part of the narrative as he makes parallels between Klee's experiences and his own. The documentary reveals the ways in which Klee's artwork evolved as he grappled with the debilitating effects of scleroderma. Meyer mirrors and meditates upon Klee's condition, both in its physical and existential aspects, which serves as a key to understanding Klee's intentions, ambitions, and achievements.
The periods of Meyer and Klee are clearly different; Klee did not have access to the state-of-art health facilities that Meyer has and, in this sense, Klee's state had been much more mysterious. Nevertheless, Meyer exposes the painful condition, the drastic procedures he has to undergo, and most important, the existential uncertainty that hangs over the director as the sword of Damocles, ready to terminate him any minute.
Meyer's fate is dramatic and precarious, and he crafts Angel Applicant as a personal survival story, a social thriller that at some moments forgets Klee. Only after several procedures does Meyer arrive at a junction that Klee probably arrived at in his life, connecting the dots, leading to an epiphany about one's mortality and the therapeutic nature of artistic expression.
Angel Applicant mixes melancholy with sudden bursts of joie de vivre in an honest portrayal of what it means to live with a life-threatening disease and how it alters day-to-day proceedings. Obviously, Meyer's wife and daughter played a huge role, though he keeps them mostly offscreen. However, Angel Applicant periodically switches into a confessional home video, with Klee serving as a guide in the darkest hours offering a sense of hope, inspiration, and purpose.
To a certain degree, Meyer's exposé of the disease prompts re-appraisal for Klee's oeuvre, fostering a renewed appreciation for his legacy. Angel Applicant certainly serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of art to push through, even if the odds seem stacked against us.
In addition to portraying the challenges of living with a debilitating condition, the film triggers further investment of a lay audience to a more inclusive environment. Angel Applicant thus serves as a secondhand, social-activist documentary.
By creating awareness for scleroderma in a culturally and socially meaningful way, the film certainly offers consolation and hope. Come for Paul Klee's history-making expressionism and bizarre vignettes, stay to witness the triumph of the human spirit.
Meyer certainly does not capture the ordeal as a pleasure cruise. Angel Applicant is a bumpy emptional rollercoaster that will nudge viewers to question themselves: how would they respond to a similar turn of fate?
In a market with an overabundance of personal tragedies, and biographical misfortunes, Meyer found a way how to bypass conventions and create an emotionally engaging, culturally relevant, and socially influential double portrait.
Angel Applicant won the Documentary Feature Jury Award at SXSW 2023. It premieres in Toronto today, and will screen again on Friday, May 5, at Scotiabank Theatre 7. The film will be available to stream, only in Canada, from May 5-9, via the official Hot Docs site.