Thomas Riedelsheimer is the director whose extraordinary eye for detail and beauty brought us Rivers and Tides, about the Scottish environmental artists Andy Goldsworthy (one of my favourite films) and Touch the Sound, about the vibrant deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Both documentaries go places most films don’t, illuminating art and creativity and taking our breath away. Soul Birds is a much different film, and it arose when the director met medical personnel who work with terminally ill children. These people had a special energy, he said at the screening, and he wondered if this was a gift from the children themselves.
The film was several years in the making because it was a challenge to find families who were able to allow a director into their lives at such a difficult time. The children of Soul Birds are fifteen year old Pauline, ten year old Richard and six year old Lenni, all afflicted with leukemia. Lenni has been ill most of his life, born with Down’s Syndrome and dealing with heart trouble. Despite his pain he knows nothing but love for his parents and his siblings. Richard is a new patient and in isolation during intensive treatment. With so much time alone he develops a sophisticated understanding of the thin line between life and death. And beautiful, vivacious Pauline who has relapsed twice has decided not to endure another round of treatment. She meditates and does qi gong, acts in plays with her sister and laughs like any teenager. Her diary is wise and heartbreaking as she wonders about the soul and what may or may not be scary about death. She is serene but she wants so badly to live. Riedelsheimer’s approach is intensely cinematic, exploring the internal light of each character rather than conducting informational interviews or providing backstory. His camera knows when to linger on grass or a fence or a face. It is difficult not to be affected by this powerful film.