As in her animated documentary “Nuts!” (2016), about a man who made a fortune transplanting goat testicles as an impotence treatment, director Penny Lane blurs the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. In “The Pain of Others,” she also explores the fine line between delusion and reality, but in this case it’s not about a dubious cure but about a disease some think is imaginary.
Reminiscent of Jennifer Brea’s “Unrest” (2017), which relates her struggle to get doctors to take her crippling chronic fatigue seriously, Lane’s film focuses on three women suffering from Morgellons disease, the symptoms of which include the sensation of parasites crawling under the skin and the eruption of wormlike threads from lesions. Most physicians — though not all — say the malady is psychogenic, which only intensifies the victims’ desperation and deterioration.
Except for an occasional news report that establishes a tentative objectivity, “The Pain of Others,” like Lane’s “Our Nixon” (2013), consists of found and archival footage — in this case the YouTube videos that the women have posted to a community of fellow “Morgies.” In these they talk about their symptoms, search for a cure, and show, with heartbreaking obsessiveness and distress, the sometimes stomach-turning outbreaks of sores and the growths of mysterious fibers (the film is a treat for those who like to pick, pull, and pop). Anxiety, loneliness, and anger disrupt their efforts to be upbeat and agreeable.
Tasha plaintively describes how skeptics dismiss her illness. “It makes me feel crazy and it makes me feel stupid,” she says. “But it’s real.” She obsessively studies patches of hair, microscopic video images of filaments that look like filaments on a movie lens, and a bit of tissue protruding from her nose. Is it a worm or a piece of skin? Eventually she shaves her head.
Marcia pulls convincing- looking threads from her fingers and wonders why doctors can’t see them. Later she has coated her face with pulverized aspirin.
Carrie is perhaps the most heartbreaking, her face pressed close to the lens, whispering plaintively like a fugitive, apologetically unburdening her palpable panic, pain, and loneliness. Later she confides how her life has been transformed by drinking her own urine and rubbing it into her face.
Lane describes “The Pain of Others” as a “body-horror documentary,” a term evocative of such films by David Cronenberg as “The Brood” (1979) and “Dead Ringers” (1988). Because of their disorder, the subjects seem paralyzed by a fascination with and abhorrence of their sheer physicality.
The title alludes to Susan Sontag’s 2003 book “Regarding the Pain of Others,” which decries the voyeuristic consumption of images of suffering. Perhaps Lane is suggesting that her film might be as much about the viewer as the subject. Detached by media, viewers can indulge in the media torrent of torment and violence as an entertainment or, for the higher-minded, an exercise in moral rectitude.
But in Lane’s film such distancing is more difficult. Tasha, Marcia, and Carrie record pain that only they can feel. It may be imaginary, but it is no less real. They are vulnerable, on the verge of breaking down, and watching their videos seems like an invasion of privacy. It makes you uncomfortable and aware of your privileged position as an observer, which may be a first step to empathy.
“The Pain of Others” is available from Fandor on Sunday.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.