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  • Paula Tiberius

Blissful At Zero

Review of Blissful At Zero, screened at the Highland Park Independent Film Festival, Saturday, October 7th, 2018 at 12:00pm

Films about death and dying are a tough sell. People don’t generally want to be reminded of their eventual demise, especially at the hands of a terminal illness. But what if there was a movie that made you feel better about the whole thing? Blissful at Zero, a new documentary about a young woman dying of a rare form of cancer, miraculously uplifts the soul with a disarming simplicity that makes you believe maybe you could be okay with dying too.

Nicole Tupper is a radiant woman of 30 with enormous deep brown eyes that pop from her beautiful face, two mirrors daring us to face the question underlying the film: Are you enjoying life? Her friend tells us that when Nicole eats a bite of food, she enjoys it in a way that the rest of us rarely do – relishing it, appreciating it, and living in the joy of the moment – “blissful at zero.” It reminded me of the moment of enlightenment for punk-rocker-turned-Zen-priest Brad Warner in his book Hardcore Zen, when, after several misleading visions and distractions that he thinks are the goal of his path, he finally realizes true bliss in the simple act of eating an orange. That’s how the divine expresses itself.

We live in the moment with Nicole as she navigates her world of home and hospital, friends and doctors, and two devoted parents – a mother who wonderfully harmonizes with her daughter’s grace and spiritual peace, and a father with his own form of Zen, the art of waiting to “see what happens next.” It’s a peaceful world where the tone is set by Nicole herself who is so at ease with “moving on to the next realm,” that it allows her loved ones to be themselves around her, to talk about her illness frankly, and to laugh and cry whenever they feel like it. Bright colors populate her surroundings – rich coral pinks, robin’s egg blues, radiant yellows – a reminder that the wonders of life are available to us even in our final days. On a trip to the hairdresser she divulges that one of her secrets to outliving her prognosis is to look good as often as possible. Indeed, every day we’re with her she is “showing up” for life, something that many people without a terminal illness are incapable of doing in general.

Blissful At Zero Trailer

Nicole’s doctor calls her a ‘rare bird’ because he seldom witnesses positivity in the face of a terminal illness. He “genuinely can’t explain how she’s not dead,” at the start of the film when a title tells us that it’s been sixteen months since the three-to-six-month time frame he gave her to live. And perhaps it is this brief time frame that is the most unique element of the movie. The filmmakers only had about two months with Nicole and her family, and as co-director Emma Fazzuoli put it in the Q&A after the screening at the Highland Park Independent Film Festival this Saturday, “You think you have all this time, and you really don’t.” She was answering a question about the shooting process, revealing that she and co-director Joe Gasparik were planning many more filming days with Nicole, who was also busy organizing more scenes, regularly texting them updates and ideas, when suddenly the cancer took a turn for the worse. But of course, Fazzuoli was also speaking existentially about the theme of the film, that the time to enjoy life is now.

Beyond Nicole’s many transcendent, spiritually reassuring dialogues throughout, the film itself adheres to the concept of living in “the now.” We’re not burdened by watching the intricacies of navigating the health care system, for example, and we’re not bogged down by the conventional trajectories of “dying” narratives where the “victim” is taken by surprise and the “tragedy” unfolds. Rather, we’re thrust into the spotlight of a death very much underway, and we’re already holding the hand of a graceful spirit. We can imagine the roller coaster ride that hit this family months earlier if we want to, but that’s not what the film asks of us. It asks us only to be guided by Nicole for a few weeks, to see through her lens, one with no regrets and no fear. She makes the darkness light, the impossible possible, and shows us an uplifting death.

One doctor in the movie points out that historically, deaths mostly occurred at home with family, and that the relatively recent medicalization of death robs us of witnessing the full circle of life organically. Perhaps we need that spectacle to assuage the fear, and embrace it, and perhaps that’s why Nicole wanted to make this film. She was moved to share her perspective in order to help others who might be struggling with their fear of illness and death. I would submit that that category of “others” includes all of us, and that she certainly did us a service by allowing us to witness how graceful death can be. The filmmakers honor her story with an unpretentious style of storytelling that makes room for all of us to take in the profound message, and if we’re lucky, dip our toes into that blissful feeling of zero, one moment at a time.

Blissful at Zero Synopsis

Through a shift in perspective, Nicole Tupper, a young woman living with a rare form of terminal cancer, shocks her doctors when she outlives her prognosis beyond everyone’s expectations. With the support of her family and friends, Nicole finds the beauty and meaning behind her pain, and discovers what makes life worth living. Blissful at Zero follows Nicole, doctors of Eastern and Western medicine, and a Jungian psychologist as they offer an inspiring and thought-provoking examination of what it truly means to be alive.

Directed by Joe Gasparik & Emma Fazzuoli, Produced by Joe Gasparik, Emma Fassuoli, Aaron Landman and Adam Hutsell.

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