Sometimes it seems there’s a fine line between art and our everyday lives – stories and plotlines grip us, we mourn the death of our favorite characters and we become emotionally invested in what happens on screen. We watch movies to believe something fictional can really happen, finding ourselves deeply invested in someone else’s reality.
What then, can be said about nonfiction film, its subjects actually real and points of view pulled directly from people telling their own stories? This past weekend’s Wind-Up Fest – known previously as the Williamstown Film Festival – raised these considerations. Documentary is not so much holding a mirror up to nature as taking a slice of it, really, a notion reinforced beautifully by the three Wind-Up Fest events I attended.
Uncertain, a 2015 documentary by Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands that was screened Oct. 17 at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, is a quiet force. It’s a compelling portrait of the residents of Uncertain, a tiny 94-person town on the border of Louisiana and Texas. It’s a strange name for a town – and the stories of the people who reside there are sometimes even stranger, but they are presented in their raw forms and ultimately become heartwarming.
One resident, Henry, spends his time fishing on the lake. As the film progresses, we learn more. As a black man, he wanted to send his kids to school. His community didn’t want him to, and it seems he thinks that the rest of the black community purposely wanted to make race a polarizing issue. “My own people were against me. This Uncle Tom shit,” he recalls. “Segregation. ‘White folk, white folk, white folk,’” other black people would shout at him. Henry starts to carry his pistol because of violent confrontations. One night, men come with lug wrenches. He shoots.
Uncertain follows Henry, Wayne, Zach, Karen, Tom, Lee as they live their lives in Uncertain. We learn about their past, and see it come together in the present.
The cinematography is thoughtful, and the result is indelible. Henry’s oar cuts through the marsh, and the water of the lake cascades, glides, over it. There are shots where the camera sits on a boat that moves through the swamp. There is something serene about the deserted forestry, yet something equally but oppositely threatening about the weeds that start growing in the lake.
There are almost no segues in Uncertain. You make your own. The stories are all closely intercut, and you begin to wonder if the characters know each other in this small town of 94. Maybe, maybe not. It makes it all the more interesting, then, that these seemingly unrelated stories are related as a whole in the end.
“I know I’ve done wrong. But I know I’ve done good. And I pray to God that my goodness outweighs my wrong,” Henry says. “If you keep doing wrong, time will catch you.”
We’re human. We do things. Some things better considered than others. McNicol and Sandilands capture this in an absolutely beautiful light.
There’s the same sense of gritty but affecting vitality in Of Men and War by Laurent Bécue-Renard. Screening as one of the last films in the festival last Sunday, the documentary presents the harrowing stories of 12 veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that wrenches them away from their families and wrings their lives dry. They seek treatment at The Pathway Home, a first-of-its-kind PTSD therapy center founded by Fred Gusman in Yountville, Calif.
All the veterans wear sunglasses indoors, as if there were some sense of vulnerability that could be seen in their eyes, a vulnerability whose existence they couldn’t possibly betray, even to each other. Sitting around a table, one veteran anxiously scratches his thighs and the sound of his nails against his jeans is all we can hear. He speaks about being on the frontline, waiting and shooting a man who runs past. When they approach the body and look for weapons, there are none. He asks: “Don’t know, don’t care, right?”
He tells us about trying to shut the dead man’s eyes, or rather, the one eye that is left, and how he couldn’t. The man is staring at the veteran, flooding him with guilt; who knows when it will fade away.
The camera movement in Of Men and War is excellent. It shifts like our eyes would, following each veteran’s breathing, each of their minute movements. There’s a precarious scene in which a veteran’s shadow looms in front of him as he follows it, as if it were waiting for him, wanting him to trip and fall in. When the same veteran speaks to his wife, he teeters on both his feet, his voice cracking. The shadow is back. It falls on her face, off, on again, creeping. What will happen to him? To her? To them? It’s uncertain.
The veterans’ voices drip with bitterness and hatred, and the whole thing is hard to watch:
“This anxiety shit fucking sucks. I fucking hate it.” “I think I cost me my marriage.” “I think it’d be selfish to learn how to forgive myself.”
At one point, we see the eyes of one of the veterans over the rim of his sunglasses. They’re bloodshot. Bécue-Renard films these 12 stories and puts together a portrait of torment. It has to get better. Right?
During a talk on Sunday at Goodrich Hall as part of the festival, cinematographer and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson asked the hard questions. Johnson, known for her work on Citizenfour and The Oath, questioned what the responsibilities of a filmmaker really are and the power one has when one is behind the camera. She recounted following a firefighter in Ferguson during the riots last August and inadvertently capturing him on camera talking to his men: “All I care about is you guys. I don’t want any of you guys to get hurt. If things are burning, let them keep burning. Just get out of there. If the people are starting to attack you, just get out of there. But whatever you do, do not spray them with water.”
Maybe a picture really is worth a thousand words – but in this case, it was definitely thousands more. The firefighter from Ferguson had Charles Moore’s image of police turning firehoses on children in Birmingham in 1963 so deeply ingrained in his mind that he was absolutely adamant the image not be captured by anyone again – lest he face the consequences.
Whether we like it or not, we remember what we see. Films, stories, photographs – they have a lasting effect on us. An image that did good in the 1960s, that shocked the world and brought attention to Bull Connor and backwards Birmingham, was avoided in 2014. We now spray people with tear gas and pepper them with rubber bullets. More abusive, less abusive, it doesn’t really matter. Anything – just not firehoses, for the sake of the images.
Johnson also faced a dilemma in this very situation.
“As I’m filming, I’m thinking, ‘I’m betraying these guys, I can’t film this. This is going to do harm to this person’s reputation and life.’”
So what do filmmakers do, then? Do they betray the trust of their subjects, and speak out against them? Do they stop filming, and get involved? Try to change the course of things? As a documentary filmmaker, Johnson has a purpose when she makes a film – a purpose to be transparent about the truth, and also a purpose for herself, a purpose we may never know, for why she wanted to make the film she’s making.
Perhaps some of the best films never get made, because the issues meant to be captured are being resolved instead of filmed. Perhaps. But maybe that’s not for the best. After all, how would we know about it if we never got a chance to see it?