When Roger Ebert named Errol Morris’ 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven as one of his ten favourite films of all time in 1981, it prompted a lot of people to check out this incredible little documentary that has been somewhat neglected over time. It was not until the 12th of April, while watching the short documentary by Errol Morris entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe that I discovered Gates of Heaven, and I was floored by the great praise Ebert had bestowed upon it. I had to see it. And a few days later, I did.
At the time, I enjoyed the documentary very much and was quite moved by it, but soon forgot about it in the tide of other movies I had to watch. Recently on YouTube however I discovered a scene from the movie that inspired me to stop for a minute and reconsider this powerful, incredible film that is so cruelly underrated. I upgraded my rating from 9/10 to 10/10 based on this single scene alone, which sent a wave of emotion through me. I’ve included a clip from the scene below, the very same clip I happened to stumble across, and whether you’ve seen Gates of Heaven or not, I want you to watch it.
For those not familiar with the film, it is a documentary that consists of several interviews with pet owners about their animals who have died, and the struggle that has occurred in securing a pet cemetery so that the animals can be buried there. There is a potential for this film to become sappy and emotional, but it doesn’t. At least, it doesn’t try to. I did feel emotional watching it, because like most people, I had a pet that I was very attached to (well, it was my sister’s pet, and she was the one that really loved it), and that pet’s death shook the entire family. I have a vivid memory from when I was about 12 or 13 of our whole family comforting and hugging my sister, and of myself being faced in a rather uncomfortably direct manner with raw emotion and devastation in a person that I had never seen before, outside of the movies of course. It is one of the most unpleasant memories I have in my lifetime.
Gates of Heaven has stories like this to tell, some much, much more personal and many of them much, much sadder. But there are some moments when we don’t need dialogue to feel the movie’s power, and the most important of these moments is captured in this scene I’m about to show you, which starts at 1:46 (though please do watch the entire five minute clip to get the full effect). It shows a young man standing above a valley soaked in lifelessness, playing his electric guitar loudly through an amplifier, so that the sound can be heard miles and miles away. It’s a moment that’s truly beyond words, and its effect is only enhanced by the scenes that come before and after it.