Cursed, before your eyes | AspenTimes.com

Cursed, before your eyes

Corby Anderson
Special to The Aspen Times

Tomasz Sliwinski and Magda Hueckel sink like anvils into the recesses of their rumpled couch. Numbly cradling drinks, sharing a cigarette, they peer into the corners of nowhere with the stunned gazes of a young couple whose lives have been impossibly altered by the birth of their first child.

For any couple, the life changes brought about by childbirth are pervasive and daunting, but in their unflinching self-made documentary "Our Curse," Polish filmmakers Sliwinsky and Hueckel grapple with the seemingly insurmountable task of raising their son, Leo, born with Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome, an extremely rare, often fatal respiratory condition.

The title of the film can appear harsh at first glance — the "curse" refers to an alternative name for Leo's illness, Ondine's Curse — so named after the myth of the water nymph Ondine, whose love for an unfaithful mortal man who has sworn that "every waking breath would be a testament to his love" leads her to curse the philanderer to forget to breathe when he falls asleep. It would be natural for any couple to ponder their fate when dealt such a difficult hand, but after wrestling with the negative aspect of the title, the film clearly gravitates toward the collective owning of their situation as they fight to keep Leo alive in his first days home from the hospital.

Shot in raw, unflattering light with static, locked off cameras, and cut in a simple, story-forward fashion, the film succeeds in engrossing the viewer with pure, heart-rending honesty. Gregarious, bubbly and curious as any healthy child when awake, Leo's condition can kill him anytime that he falls asleep. The film documents the brutal unknown that the couple faces at virtually every breath of his sleeping moments.

Other than a pep talk from a doctor who tells them that raising a boy with a condition documented fewer than 1000 times in human history will be "a cool challenge," the couple are largely left to discover how to keep their son alive on their own. Every new alarm from the shabbily-equipped respirator, or gasp from the breathless child is met with weary concern. The lack of noise is even more distressing, and cause for an immediate, potentially lifesaving action.

The sleepless parents retire to the couch, cling loosely to their vices and ponder what life will be like for their son. When will he first become aware of his condition? "How do you explain to a child that every night, he can die? That is so incredibly weird," his mother wonders aloud. In one bare scene, Tomasz blankly states that "It is if Leo is the materialization of all of your fears," to his mate. "Now what?" he ponders over the staccato mechanical din of Leo's respirator. "Now I don't have to afraid of them anymore," she sweetly answers.

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Because of its stark reality, "Our Curse" is a difficult story to watch. And, with Leo's constant struggles to live audibly playing out in the background, it is even more difficult to listen to through woven fingers. But for those reasons, this is exactly the type of film that makes the Aspen Shortsfest so impactful and artistically important. It is an unblinking study of the unyielding love and the mental toll of parenthood. Leo may have been saddled with a terrible start, but his parents are doggedly determined to help him overcome his curse.

If you go …

What: Our Curse (Aspen Shortsfest Competition Program Six)

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday at April 11, 5:30 pm

Cost: Gen. Admission $15/Members $12/Students $10

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