I have some very talented friends. I want to tell you about one today: Joshua Seftel, an Emmy Award-winning, Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker who has made a compelling short-subject film titled “The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano.”
Seftel has been screening the film at various festivals around the country, and this week he received a national platform for it with none other than the New York Times, which selected the documentary for its prestigious “Op-Docs” feature. (A spot on the front of the Times home page is nothing to sneeze at.)
The 26-minute film follows Phil Toledano, a friend of Seftel’s who is suffering 40-something angst about the way he will die. It wasn’t just a general fear of death that was getting to Toledano: He worried about the exact way he will depart this world.
So in a fascinating three-year project, Toledano embarked on a strange and detailed exploration of his fears. Seftel writes in his Times introduction to the film: “He had a makeup artist use prosthetics to transform him into a character in any number of fatalistic fantasies, so that Phil could live out and actually photograph himself experiencing every possible future he could imagine.”
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Thus, we get to “see” Toledano confront such fates as becoming homeless and obese, getting disfiguring plastic surgery, having a stroke, becoming an alcoholic and getting busted for insider trading. Seftel watched him “die” – seven different ways.
Told the wrong way, the project could have been cheesy and sentimental, nothing more than a reality show-style gimmick. But in Seftel’s gifted hands, the film dives much deeper into territory that is evocative and, in a certain way, uncomfortable. Anxiety about death is programmed into us, some might say, as a survival instinct. And yet we have been blessed with brains big enough to imagine a myriad of possibilities in terms of making our final exits. Acknowledging the inevitability of death could be debilitating (and it does become that way for some people) if it isn’t balanced with the selective amnesia required to soldier through life as a reasonably adjusted human being.
On top of that, the film’s storytelling is superb. It’s a compact, original and captivating experience. (Then again, I’m biased, but I wanted y’all to know it’s out there.) Congrats, Josh.