The words ‘I love you’ sit blinking on an otherwise blank screen while everyone else is asleep. It is the only way Kathryn can communicate, and by extension, it is the only way she can live.
Eat Your Catfish is a stunning but painful look at Kathryn, two years after a life-changing ALS diagnosis and a couple of months away from her daughter’s wedding.
ALS is a rare neurological disease which affects voluntary muscle movement and can leave a person unable to do anything for themselves but think.
But this is not a documentary about ALS. Instead, it is a raw family portrait of terminal illness, a crumbling marriage, and a woman fighting for autonomy over her voice and body.
The direction of Eat Your Catfish
Filmed from a camera at the top of her wheelchair, we never see Kathryn in the late stages of her illness. Instead, we get to know her through pictures from her younger days and her own narration using a speech-generation device.
This is where Eat Your Catfish departs from your average documentary about disability and terminal Illness.
Although the idea for the project came from Kathryn’s son, Noah Amir Arjomand, the voice of the story is all Kathryns.
We are locked into Kathryn’s experience by never moving on from the perspective behind her. Just like how she cannot leave her New York Apartment when tensions run high, and it feels like the cameras should be turned away, we cannot leave.
Despite this being Kathryn’s story, we are given unbiased access to her. She is a complex woman who is kind and cruel in equal parts. The documentary manages to sympathise with her while also fully showing the strains that her demanding condition put on her family.
At no point does this feel like a tired stereotype of disability. There are no images of silent saints, doting husbands, or selfless children. They are allowed to be flawed humans, trying to do the right thing for the one they love, but often failing through no fault of their own.
The relationship between Kathryn and her Husband, Said, is particularly notable. There is a breakdown of communication that goes beyond Kathryn’s condition as they struggle to make sense of each other.
Kathryn even contemplates divorcing Said but decides against it out of logical thought, rather than any residual tender feelings.
Kathryn’s son, and one of the film’s directors Noah, also features heavily in the project. His frustration with his mother’s illness, his father’s misunderstanding and the breakdown of their marriage is felt almost through the screen.
Anyone with older caregivers will recognise the frustration of having to parent your own parent as they slowly decline into a second childhood. For Noah, it feels like even more of a struggle as the one person he wants to talk to about it can only do so with a screen and a three-minute delay.
Capturing this frustration is no easy task for the three directors, Adam Isenberg, Noah Amir Arjomand, and Senem Tuzen. But they balance it with a gentleness that delivers as close to an honest depiction as you can get.
Aside from the completely exposing nature of the documentary, Eat Your Catfish is also a fight to give Kathryn her voice and her autonomy.
Her instructions for how to manipulate her body into the dress she picked out for her daughter’s wedding are blissfully ignored. Instead, the care workers do it the way that is easiest for them, not the way she feels most comfortable.
It is harrowing to witness Kathryn repeat over and over that it is “MY dress and MY body” in the only robotic voice she has access to. Nobody seems to grasp that the only way that Kathryn has any control in her life, is if she demands it.
This is the perfect example of how disabled people are often spoken for when it comes to their own care. It makes it even more poignant that we see the world from the top of Kathryn’s chair- she is a human being, not her illness.
Despite all the harshness of this documentary, there are snippets of lightness. Family members clustered around her on her daughter’s wedding day and delicate placings of hair behind her ears all show the tender moments that happen no matter what your situation is.
Countless times, Kathryn tries to guess what her future audience will feel while watching her life. Will they feel pity? Disgust? Fear? She wonders whether people will understand her choice to live whenever so much of life is out of reach for her.
But, she argues:
“Love makes life utterly compelling”.
Eat Your Catfish is a revealing story about living with a debilitating illness. It leaves no stone unturned when it comes to caring for a disabled person, and yet it is uncompromising when it comes to the voice of disabled people.
Featured Image Credit: Deckert Distribution