From Still Processing (2020), dir. Sophy Romvari (image courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

In Still Processing, Sophy Romvari puts her own grief in the spotlight. The documentary short, made years after two of her brothers’ deaths, investigates personal and familial history in search of peace. In one scene, Romvari stands over a lightboard examining old photos. In the dark room, the light outlines her silhouette against darkness, evoking the mysterious glowing suitcases of Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction. The light is foreboding, some unknowable truth about the world. It portends an uncomfortable clarity, a realization that casting light on death does not necessarily illuminate it.

Over the past five years, Romvari’s shorts have screened at festivals like True/False, TIFF, and Indie Memphis, garnering awards and acclaim for her creative use of nonfiction to explore identity, loss, and transformation. Her work is self-reflexive and intimate, challenging the idea of an objective gaze while blurring the lines between constructed and nonfiction filmmaking. The Museum of Modern Art is now streaming Still Processing, her latest film, on a double bill with Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff’s The Planters, as part of the third edition of the museum’s series The Future of Film is Female.

Still Processing integrates its own “making of” into its storytelling process. The narrative is kicked off by the discovery of a forgotten box filled with film and photographic negatives, memories of childhood and Romvari’s brothers made tangible. It’s structured as much around the ethical questions involved with laying bare such painful memories as it is in the minutia involved in turning these materials into a film. The title is a double entendre, alluding to processing both grief and photographic elements. Romvari annotates the images she’s cataloging with subtitles — challenging, adding to, or commenting on what’s on the screen. 

This builds on two of Romvari’s previous shorts, closing off an unofficial trilogy about grieving. Norman, Norman and In Dog Years are both about elderly dogs. In Norman, Norman, Romvari turns her camera on her longtime companion, the 16-year-old Shih Tzu Norman. Close-ups study facets of Norman’s aging body cuddled up against Romvari while she researches Barbara Streisand, who cloned her own beloved pups over a decade ago. With In Dog Years, Romvari widens her scope. Placing the camera at a dog’s eyeline, she interviews people about their own slowing canines, celebrating these relationships even as it anticipates imminent loss. These films feel like a plea to hold onto life — if not by cloning, then by capturing textures, memories, and gestures on screen. 

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In a way, Still Processing challenges the expectant loss in those films. Romvari’s outbursts of grief are unpredictable and therefore almost untenable. Rather than be defined by the inevitable, the short is structured around absence. The deaths of her brothers echo outward; Romvari also loses touch with her childhood and memories, leaving gaps and unspoken conversations. Silence weighs heavily, interrupted only by the stray thoughts in the subtitles. It’s almost as if speaking would shatter all defences Romvari and her family have built. How we mourn evolves, but does not necessarily dissipate. She draws viewers into uncomfortable emotional states, forcing them to reflect on love and loss in their own lives. 

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These methods point to a wider generation of filmmakers pushing documentary in new directions. Romvari considers the landscape of virtual worlds, where anyone can bare their soul for public consumption. Though intimate, her cinema considers the dangers of exploiting suffering for art. She considers the impact that putting out a film would have not only on herself, but also those around her. Perhaps in conversation with the confessional work that emerges through a culture that allows people to turn their pain into profit, she holds back just enough to maintain her own privacy. 

Still Processing is not just a story about grief, but a reflection on stories we tell about grief in general, told in a way that both opens conversations and asserts boundaries. Rather than vague, this comes across as measured; we all suffer the pain of loss, but in different ways. Transformative change requires both time and consideration, thought and empathy. Romvari asks us to work and listen to each other without inflicting more pain on the world.

Still Processing is available to stream via MoMA through February 21.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.