A woman Is knitting, and talking about her mother, who taught her to knit. She is obviously very glad about what was passed down to her. An interviewer asks, and how old is your mother? “Oh, she must be about the same age as me.”
Cut to: a house in the countryside. On the flagpole outside, someone is raising the Danish flag, Then slowly, gradually, the flag is lowered to half mast. Someone in the community has died. Again.
“Mitgefühl” (a literal translation would be compassion) tells the story of what I guess we’d call an old people’s home in Dagmarsminde in Denmark. It was set up by May Belle Eiby, a former care worker, after her own father spent 5 months in a care home, and apparently died without receiving the relevant attention. Elby and her staff want to offer something else.
They have a problem in that the patients that they are looking after are suffering from different levels of dementia. This is particularly noticeable in the married couples. Take the new arrivals, Vibeke und Thorkild. Vibeke is seriously ill. Thorkild, on the other hand, is mainly coherent, although he does have a tendency towards forgetfulness.
The community of 12 live together, eat together, and share the same experiences of birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and – of course – deaths. Meanwhile the care workers, including Elby, are incredibly helpful and patient, always stroking people who need calming down and offering support to anyone who needs it.
They experience problems along the way – not least from their ageing guests whose expectations don’t always meet their reality. There is a wonderful scene with an irrascible woman who really doesn’t want to be there. She moans constantly and when she’s told that everything will be better in the morning, she replies “I very much doubt it”.
But in the main, people are happy to be there, or at least see it as their least worst alternative. In contrast to Elby’s father, they are receiving a degree of care and attention that would be probably missing if they were left isolated at home. Yes, they have problems with the world and the ageing process, but there are always people on hand to help them deal with it.
This is not to say that we are not confronted with death and mortality. One patient/resident (what should we call them?) had not eaten for a few days. The staff have an emergency meeting to discuss whether they should respect her desire to not continue a life that has no longer any meaning for her, or whether she doesn’t have the mental awareness to understand such a decision.
If we’re being honest, my first reaction to watching the way in which Dagmarsminde looks after its community is to pray that someone shoots me before I get that far. There is something about the communal singing and the shared breakfasts that feels so scary to me. But at the same time, my tastes and needs are not the same as other peoples’. And who knows how I will age?
I do find that Mitgefühl is a fascinating documentation of an attempt to make life under capitalism a little better in the here and now. The fact that someone has actually thought about how we care for our parents and grandparents, especially after they start to lose their grasp of reality, is really quite inspirational.
Nonetheless, I have two questions. The first is about who is funding this operation? The film is clear that this is a home for normal people, not the super rich, but knowing the terrible experience of my grandmother and others in state homes, I would love to know how it is that Liby has managed to create such an apparently idyllic community. How could we generalise from these experiences?
My second question would be about the care workers in the home. They are always there in the background, making their invaluable contribution. Yet my knowledge from friends in similar jobs is that such work is backbreaking and soul-destroying. What are the working conditions of these people? How do they manage to continue to be so consistently happy and helpful?
Maybe this is beyond the remit of this film – a useful complement to the recently released Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, in showing extraordinary people helping their local communities. But somehow we have the impression that these superhuman workers are just doing what anyone could do. This devalues their contribution. We need a new documentary, explaining exactly why they are just so special.
Until then, we have this one. It is a little utopian, but that’s not the worst thing to be. We are all of us in the gutter, but some are looking up at the stars.