Red Herring review | A thoughtful, devastating documentary

red herring documentary film
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A filmmaker and his family try to come to terms with his terminal illness in a profoundly intimate documentary. Here’s our Red Herring review at the Raindance Film Festival.

When Kit Vincent was 24 years old, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given four to eight years to live. When doctors told Kit and his family the news, his father had a literal heart attack.

Kit’s response? “Why wasn’t I filming that?” The question he gets most often, both from his family and the documentary he’s made, is why he would want to?

Originally conceived as the story of his father coming to terms with his son’s illness, over the course of the shoot it seems Kit came to realise any documentary tells us as much about the filmmaker as the object. Single-mindedly obsessed with making his project to the exclusion of almost everything else, his partner, Isabel, is often understandably furious with him. “You never start these sorts of conversations when you don’t have a camera,” she says.

Across its 94 minutes Vincent captures an astonishing level of intimacy on film. His dedication to shooting key parts of his treatment – from brain scans to his own experience of seizures – borders on the alarming. Conversations with his family often concern painfully personal aspects of their relationship or Kit’s illness; sometimes, it’s clear they’re wondering why on earth he’s getting all this on camera.

The senior Vincent, Kit’s former college principal father, Lawrence, still performs a key role in the finished film. With a relationship seemingly strengthened by Kit’s diagnosis, their scenes together are some of the warmest, showing an openness that belies the film’s more tragic moments. His own journey of conversion to Judaism provides a life-affirming counterpoint to his son’s situation.

But it’s that unflinching closeness that gives Red Herring a sort of devastating power and a rawness it’s impossible not to find moving. Towards the end of his debut, Kit laments that he didn’t want to make a sad film. Perhaps he didn’t, and there’s no shortage of emotional warmth here, or dark comedy in amongst the trauma, but the overwhelming feeling by the end is of a family struggling to process something it’s impossible to come to terms with.

It would be remiss not to point out the genuinely impressive filmmaking on display. The frequent calls to discuss scan results with doctors are shot and edited with a tension that’s almost difficult to watch. For a first feature in a year overflowing with excellent British debuts, it takes a special something to stand out from the crowd.

Most stories about death, the tellers insist, end up being more about life. Red Herring, from the director’s insistence at the start, is unabashedly about the thing most of us would rather not confront. In that way, it’s hard to think of a more devastating film in 2023. Few, too, are more beautiful.

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