Lost in Face

A statistic flashed up at the end of the film that I could barely believe. Apparently 1% of all people have Prosopagnosia, otherwise known as face blindness. This is an illness/affliction where you can’t remember faces. I wonder if the 1% figure includes my dad, who was recently diagnosed with something similar as he finds it difficult to follow films because he mixes up the characters. But for some people it goes much deeper.

Recently someone showed Carlotta a photo and asked her to identify who it was. She had no idea – all faces really do look the same to her. Except that this wasn’t even a human face, but that of a chimpanzee. As long as the facial structure stays roughly the same, she finds it impossible to distinguish. It’s not that she doesn’t notice the features, but she forgets them almost immediately.

At a Q&A after tonight’s screening, Carlotta explained how this is comparable to Alzheimers. If you’ve been keeping up with this year’s crop of Alzheimer films you’ll know that sufferers can meet close family members, recognise that they are human beings, but have no idea who they are. So it is with Carlotta, who now recognises people best by their glasses or items of clothing. Shoes are particularly useful to her.

At the Q&A there was also a discussion about whether we should really talk about people “suffering” from Prosopagnosia. Their life experiences are just as legitimate as those of others. Well, yes they are, but it doesn’t mean they don’t suffer. My mother had arthritis nearly all her life. She could barely walk and spent 18 months in a children’s hospital which was more like a prison. She never complained, but boy did she suffer.

Carlotta also did not have an easy childhood. It’s difficult to make friends if people look the same to you. It’s also difficult if you have an undiagnosed illness which makes people think you’re stupid. When her teachers started to bully her, her classmates joined in. And then there was the trauma of finding out that she’d been adopted.

If I had any expectations when I went into the film it was of something which would explain what it’s like to have Prosopagnosia. What do you see? What don’t you see? Yet if you think about this for one minute, you’d realise how difficult it would be to make this film. Imagine you met someone who had no concept of the colour green. How would you start to explain how they experience life?

Instead, we largely follow Carlotta through her day-to-day life. This is a great gamble for the director, neuroscientist Valentin Riedl, as he can no longer rely on an interesting illness, but also needs a subject who keeps us involved. Fortunately, Carlotta is a godsend – both misanthropic (she’s cut herself from most people) and remarkably cheerful. You enjoy time spent in her company.

Carlotta managed to escape her youthful despair when she realised that you could draw self portraits by touching your own face. Although she sometimes gets it wrong, and is not averse to adding three ears or six eyes, she is an accomplished artist and some of the resulting portraits are highly impressive (that’s not “impressive” as in “not bad for someone with an illness”. They are really good).

Every so often, Lost in Face contains fairly abstract cartoon films, which are based on pictures from Carlotta’s dream diary. These cartoons work as a metaphor which start to give us the start of an idea of what its like to have Prosopagnosia. They are a bit weird, and, again, really powerful. To get a general idea of what they look like, Riedl used similar films for his short film Carlotta’s Face, which also told Carlotta’s story.

Lost in Face meanders at times, and could have maybe done with some tighter editing. But this is a minor problem. Carlotta is an engaging personality who refuses to be beaten down by her problems, yet somehow manages to be likeable rather than insufferable. Maybe this has something to do with her perfect happiness living on her own with her budgerigars, with as little interference from the outside world as possible.

It’s not a life for everyone, but that’s part of what makes it interesting.

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