Like a spiritual sequel to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Original Copy sings a dirge for aging artists unfulfilled. Directed by Georg Heinzen and Florian Heinzen-Ziob, this documentary captures a small corner of the world in a moment of change, with all the heart and melancholy that can possibly be wrung out of the shared human experience.
Sheikh Rehman is an artist. More specifically, he paints large-scale movie posters for a rundown theater in the heart of Mumbai. Rehman’s posters capture romantic moments of action, love, and heroism, his near-photorealistic eye augmented with expressionistic and impressionistic vision. (“They ask me why I painted the girl pink,” he cheerfully recounts. “No human being is pink. But it makes her even more beautiful!”)
As Rehman and his crew work on their latest poster, pulling beautiful images piece by piece out of the blank canvas, the film also follows the ins and outs of some of the other employees and goings on of the movie theater where the poster will eventually be installed. Times are very tough, and Heinzen and Heinzen-Ziob find small, telling moments of the human struggle that capture those hardships in microcosm.
Some documentaries will wow you with some crazy narrative, with the twists and turns of reality that no fiction can equal. Original Copy isn’t one of those, preferring instead to be a matter of fact, slice-of-life experience. And it benefits greatly from its choice of central subject.
S. Rehman, as he is professionally known, is a fascinating individual, a curious mix of deadpan cynic and yearning romantic. Working on his paintings with longtime friends, he can be nasty, biting, and short-tempered in one moment, open-hearted and loving in the next. When he paints, he fixes on the canvas as if it is the only thing in the world, weaving colors together with a master’s easy touch. Rehman can conjure life and mood with a single brush-stroke, and the failure of others to catch up to or appreciate that genius is one of the sadder threads of the film.
And Original Copy is no stranger to sadness. It’s not a wallow, not a pity party; but the film is shot through with the melancholy that Rehman, his team, and their employers deal with day to day. While we never stray from the theater and see the home lives of the various characters, references abound that paint a picture of the pressures and losses that have made these people who they are. The theater owner admits that life around movies has warped the way she views events, including the death of her daughter. We’re told the story of how Rehman’s young apprentice has lost his vibrant joy since his father passed and he has been left the man of his household.
And then there’s S. Rehman himself. Again, we never see him far from his canvas, almost never see him when he’s not mid-process. But as the movie progresses, more and more of his outside life creeps into the film. How his father was an incredibly talented artist but never had financial success and his work is now unheralded. How his sons took no interest in his work and now he must build a surrogate family instead. How his grown sons and extended family look down on him and his profession, how the world as a whole seems to be nudging him out the door and undercutting whatever value he places in his art.
But Original Copy never tips over into despair. The movies keep rolling, S. Rehman keeps painting, and life continues to roll on. Rehman himself sums it up beautifully in the film’s instantly iconic last line, which I will not spoil here, finding solace, not grief, in the ongoing motion of time.
I hope Original Copy makes it out into the wild, because for anyone who loves film, loves art, or simply delights in our species’ capacity for invention and perseverance, it is a must see.