By Donna K. – Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then – 8/8/2013
This post is about two young female directors and their feature film debuts, two near-autobiographical docs as different as two docs could be. These two self styled films move beyond the accessibility of filmmaking in the digital revolution- a thing that is somewhat weakening the doc genre- each work possessing its own unique vision of storytelling, each director voicing their own aching journey through very different, but at the same time both poignantly personal, lives.
Elena is a journey of a young girl, actually two young girls, two young Brazilian sisters, the overlap between them, and the creative love that filled the spaces shared & unshared. The elder sister, Elena, an aspiring actress and accomplished modern dancer becomes cracked open by a deep depression that results in her loss, sending her younger sister, Petra (the film’s director) navigating through the wide outpouring of creativity that existed between the two; home movies, letters, tape recordings, a deep media diary of their friendship. Petra’s exploration sets sail unlike any other “seeking” doc I’ve seen before combining a complicated collage of sights and sounds, imagery of a literary caliber, near experimental/surrealist interludes of beauty, all piecing together a life through pre-internet home media, a time prior to the explosion of the digital self governed by skillful lifestyle editing. Apart from the actual editing wonder of this film, sleekly and effortlessly combining the varying images it culls from, the emotional wonder is just as compelling.
The chasms of depression are handled so well, the scratchy disconnect unable to truly be bridged by those existing outside of it, a darkness that the director shines a weak little flashlight into hoping for answers to the questions of why her sister disappeared and why she continues on despite their stark similarities. Petra’s meager flashlight turns out to be something far greater though, it turns out to act like the moon, a distant light that dances through her camera lens that seems miniscule in the sky but is in fact an unfathomable force of nature. The richness in filmmaking demonstrated by Petra is incredible for such a young filmmaker and for such a weighted subject, a subject that could have easily sunk into despair but instead turns into a buoyant hope. A hope for love, a hope for family, and a hope for artistic preservation in an ever increasing impermanent world…and then there is the opposite of this movie: I Hate Myself 🙂
The director Julia Arnow doesn’t really hate herself I think. I think she just doesn’t love herself. Which is a big difference. Which is why her film, I Hate Myself :), is so jarring as we watch her try to grasp for love, connection, and herself through her grainy digital camera. Arnow’s film begins as an exploration into her first boyfriend, an abrasive self defined performance artist/poet who also happens to be an emotionally abusive leech/drunk and, possibly a racist (he’s not really a racist, I think he’s more ignorant which can be equally as awful a crime). His derelict tendencies are a constant throughout the film but the film is actually all about Arnow, the reflections of herself bounced off of those she is in contact with (her aforementioned boyfriend, her loud supportive-yet-wary parents, her nude film editor, her friend’s disembodied voices on the phone). These reflections are then removed, reflected, and looked at once again as Arnow captures them behind the camera. One harsh, memorable moment was watching a headphone and camera clad Arnow listening to her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend from a distance, the ex commenting on Arnow’s looks, a callous, hurtful experience decidedly slapped into the film. This scene presents a loathing self image manufactured by someone else but then captured and re-appropriated into Arnow’s own self portrait, the opposite of the curated perfection of our digital selves.
Arnow’s film brings to mind this Miranda July sculpture I love of a carved pedastel in which people can stand on engraved with the following “This is my little girl. She is brave and clever and funny. She will have none of the problems that I have. Her heart will never be broken. She will never be humiliated. Self doubt will not devour her dreams.” The reality of this sentiment is encapsulated in Arnow’s film: existing in a post-feminist time and place that pretends to be welcoming to female existence but, in fact, continues to be just as emotionally difficult and traumatic, a truth that Arnow challenges through both sides of her very own lens. Arnow is a young female director shining a light on her shortcomings but also on those of others, and she is somehow able to work through her halting environment- internal and external- to create a strong, harsh, hideous image of both herself and of the meddling, confusing, cold (digital?) environment that has created her.
Both of these films are collages of the worlds these women are engulfed in. Petra molds a dreamlike search for her sister using the media around her to create a fluttering poem of grainy 80s home movies mixed with a crisp dreamlike digital symbolism. Arnow sees people as the medium, catching their intricacies, expertly cutting together her footage of them in their drab native habitats with a confrontational camera that catches the dark grossness of human emotion, or lack thereof, and the dim recesses of neurotic NYC malaise. Experiencing these films made for a deep contemplation on the lives of these women and, in turn, my own slef-image creation… It is important to recognize how differently we each see the world and it is equally important how we choose to manifest ourselves in it. Every life is meaningful and stunning, we all have heartache and we all see the moon, how will we choose to tell our versions of these things to others and how will we choose to listen to the stories of others?