What’s it like to lose your two-month-old brother? Torben Bernhard wants to show you.
In 1985, at two-months-old, Dane Morgan Bernhard died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in a small town called Tarkio, Missouri. 25 years later, Torben Bernhard jumped in his car with an 8MM camera and drove from Utah to the Tarkio cemetery his brother was buried in to understand the tragedy that shook his family when he was two-years old. Using an audio interview recorded years earlier with his mother, Bernhard paints a poetic portrait of his family’s loss and explores a child’s perspective of death and mourning.
With stark black and white images of the crumbling town and cemetery, juxtaposed with the sincere account of a mother to her son, Tarkio Balloon captures the innocent hope of a child amidst the unpredictable harshness of reality.
Here’s Torben’s introduction to the documentary.
A few days before my first documentary, The Sonosopher: Alex Caldiero in Life … in Sound, premiered at the Cinequest International Film Festival, I was sitting at a local café, resting from a long flight from Bangkok, suddenly feeling an intense urge to get in my car and drive to Tarkio, Missouri, where my little brother Dane Morgan Bernhard is buried. My body pulled me towards the door while my mind scrambled to assemble the logistics. With my world premier approaching, I reluctantly put the idea to rest.
The next day, Travis, co-director of The Sonosopher, and I had a wonderful conversation while driving down I-80 West through Nevada en route to San Jose, California. We discussed travel writing, hobos, and Werner Herzog’s trek, on foot, from Munich to Paris to save his close friend and film historian, Lotte Eisner. As we talked, the previously vague impression began to take form. I was supposed to go to Tarkio and make a short documentary, five minutes maximum. I was to use an audio recording I did with my mom under the images. I could hear her voice—the clip from the candid, five hour conversation I recorded with her a year earlier for oral history. I was to shoot the film on an 8mm.
When the conversation lulled into a brief pause, I shared my experience from the previous day with everyone in the car. I told them I knew I had to go. Travis told me I had to go, too. Marissa, my wife and co-producer, in the back seat, hearing this for the first time, also responded. I asked her if it was reasonable.
“No, it’s definitely not reasonable,” she said, “but we have to do it.” We agreed to make it my birthday present.
Throughout Cinequest, I escaped the pressure of the festival by fantasizing about the upcoming trip. One day, while everyone else napped, I sat awake, ideas pouring. It would be called Tarkio Balloon. I would spend a lot of time shooting in the cemetery. I would shoot a balloon floating in the air, juxtaposed with the audio of my mom telling me that, as a kid, I would try to make her feel happy, after the loss of Dane, by telling her that I would get a balloon and go get him for her. We ordered fifteen rolls of 8mm film.
After the festival, we went to visit my parents, who now live in Wyoming. While everyone was gone one day, I scanned the small, lovingly constructed photo album of Dane. We left Wyoming some days later, telling my parents that we were headed home to Utah. Instead, we drove down to Missouri. Months later I presented the film to my parents as a surprise gift.
The following is an excerpt from my journal, while in Tarkio:
There is something significant about driving down the hilly roads my parents drove down at my same age. Here I am, 27, still a child. My mother, at 27, was driving unexpectedly to the sudden death of her fourth child.
I contemplated their hopes. I thought about my own. I intuited the darkness that lies beyond bends or in the lowland obscured by hills.
It felt like stepping into a myth. My mind sought to contrive the experience. It wanted me to make “sense” of the experience, structure it like an aimless road trip movie, where I leave my journey, resurrected by exhaled breath making ashes dance again in scattered procession. I knew that worshipping the moment meant having reverence for the ephemeral—letting it slip away was the only way to be with it.
We drove the final hill and entered Tarkio, Missouri. The sign, still intact since we left it over 20 years ago, felt inviting. The cemetery stood a few yards before the sign, the brick wall forming its entry aged and decaying. The cemetery that I had once visited in a nine-year-old’s dream, surprised me now. In my blurry memory, the cemetery was tiny and unkempt. This time, with the light of concrete experience extending its borders, the cemetery was large and labyrinthian. We got out of the car, camera in hand, determined to find Dane’s grave as the sun slowly set.
Marissa, with meticulous precision, swept through the cemetery, row by row, looking for the marker. I, fighting my mind and the compulsion to contrive the whole experience, argued with myself, walking erratically through the rows, hoping for a chance encounter. As the minutes dragged on, and the grave lay hidden, it all began to feel like a dream. Maybe none of it happened. It was a nightmare, illusory, but haunting, in the recesses of my family’s collective identity. That day in September, my sister Heidi slowly walked up the stairs, dutiful as ever, to retrieve a healthy, cooing, infant. The tale of Dane simply served as a boogyman story—a folktale told to instill gratitude and compassion in young parents. My mother never performed CPR on her two-month-old son. Mom never ran out of the apartment into the snow, feet numb, child in arms, to alert the volunteer ambulance drivers in town to bring Dane to the nearest hospital.
After 49 minutes, we decided to split up and systematically look for the headstone. Using the picture of two devastated individuals and a naive two year old as a guide, I looked especially close around trees and combed two rows at a time. Fifteen minutes into our new approach, I found it.
It was strange to see my last name on a grave. I was looking at my own marker. The headstone was humble, bought with scraped-together funds. Dane was surrounded by strangers, a war veteran and other miscellaneous people, randomly placed anomalies in an otherwise small town gathering of family members who lived and died together. The grave should have been bigger. The miniature stature of it, hidden in the shadow of the large space left in our family as a result of it, seemed incongruent. Something that takes up so much mental and emotional real estate should tower physically. I can picture Tarkio, eclipsed by a grave the size of our loss.
I placed my index finger on the camera trigger and made attempts to catch the essence of a moment from the inside out.
We left the cemetery and drove through town. Main Street was full of abandoned buildings and century-old architecture. The city mourned with Dane. This is not an odd relationship in Tarkio. The dead seem to mingle seamlessly with the living. The dying buildings are filled with kind people, knowingly caring for their sick economy. The college died in the early nineties, ashamed and bankrupt. The famous “Mule Barn Theatre” my father ran during his stint at the college, burned down in the early 90s. Tarkio is replete with buildings that collectively tell a story of loss.
After a long day, we settled down in the Big T Motel and tried to sleep in preparation for the next day. I awoke, sometime in the middle of the night, to a vivid 8mm shot of the dramatic hills leading into Tarkio. The image was hypnotizing. I knew this was how the short film was to begin.
The next morning was bitter, Missouri cold. We set out to complete the actual documentation of the film, in heavy winter coats. We covered the small town for hours, shooting 13 rolls of film, our faces stinging with the gusts of sharp wind. We purchased two red roses and put them on Dane’s grave. His grave looked beautiful for the first time in many years. Around three PM, as snow began to fall, we drove away from the city, this time the hills an exit. Images of Tarkio slipped in and out of my rear view mirror.
The trip has changed me in a way I still do not quite understand. I was altered by the pilgrimage. It is inside me. The actual moments may have evaporated, only evidenced by crude film, but they accrued in my body like an organism. I imagine I will carry this new being with me for the rest of my life. There is so much I have left out. My only desire is that I have somehow left bread crumbs for a future self to find his way back to Tarkio.
The Lost and Found Series
Every film in ‘The Lost and Found Series” has a similar tale. Each story spoke to us, in one way or another, and we tried to listen. We hope that you will continue this journey with us, as we explore the theme of losing and finding through five remarkably diverse subjects. Our plan is to release three of the films (including Tarkio Balloon) online for free and include the last two in a DVD set with essays and meditations on each documentary. Tarkio Balloon recently premiered at the 8th Annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. I encourage all of you to contact me and let me know ways that you are finding what has been lost in your own lives.
Here’s to your personal quests.