One of the lighter griefs of this year can be summed up simply: an absence of strangers. Living in the city, life is pulled along by interactions with unfamiliar people and glimpses into lives that are so unlike your own that they break open your idea of what the world is and what kind of people are living in it.
For the majority of this year, all of my meaningful and paradigm shifting conversations took place between myself and people I’ve already known. Bless them, for these discussions have gotten me through the most challenging moment of our lifetime. While I don’t take those for granted, I couldn’t help but think of all the missed world-bending conversations that can occur when the alchemy of the night is just so that you find yourself across from someone new with a story to tell, asking you to see things their way, and just for a moment stand in their strange shoes. On the hunt for these suddenly elusive moments, but confined to my apartment, I turned to the art of personal documentary to find what has felt lost. If you feet like me, here is what I suggest:
HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON is a funny little tv show that pulls from the rich history of documentary filmmaking known as The Essay Film. Andre Bazin wrote about the essay film in his review of Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia (1957) - a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said. In HOW TO, John Wilson strings together short clips of his absurd observations of New York city life, with his earnest and awkwardly comical thoughts voicing over. With his address, he takes you aboard his train of thought with all of its twists and turns and tangents. The effect is the reframing of everyday banalities into miniature anthropological studies of what life on earth could mean to the humans who live there. It is a potent balm for feeling stuck in your own point of view and opportunity to put glasses on that flip the world upside down.
"Grief, curiosity, love and all the other things that connect us in this world continue to make up the fabric of what it means to be alive."
In Kirsten Johnson’s DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD, the filmmaker turns her camera onto herself and her aging father. Johnson is a career documentary cinematographer with over 20 years in the field. Her previous film, CAMERAPERSON, is a visual memoir of the experiences she has collected over her many travels working on various shoots. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD is also a personal film but instead of logging her life, she stages his death. Throughout the film, Johnson scripts and records comical situations where her father is accidentally killed; crushed by a falling AC unit and tumbling down the stairs are just two examples of the gory manifestations of their project. Beneath the antics, what you’ll find is a woman dealing with her last years with her father as she knows him. You watch a masterclass in trying to keep good cheer while making space to deal with the fear of what you love most leaving you forever. Johnson doesn’t shy away from the more tender and sad moments that her and her father experience together. It is so vulnerable and intimate that by the end of the film you feel as if you’ve met two wonderful people going through a difficult moment, touched by their honesty, inspired by their creativity, and encouraged by their bravery.
Garrett Bradley’s TIME tells the story of Fox Rich and her family as she waits 20 years for her husband, Rob, to be released from prison. In poetic black and white, Bradley mixes her footage of Rich in her last year of waiting for her husband with the home video she has recorded of herself and sons over the years in an effort to share their life with Rob, locked away. Each self-taped moment is a love letter to him, as well as a commitment to their relationship and their future life together. Through these communications, we see moments of immense joy, deep strength and immeasurable sorrow and frustration --but resilience and love win out. The story is incredibly raw and one of such vulnerability, you wonder how you’ve even gained access to something so intimate and profound from someone you’ll never know.
Grief, curiosity, love and all the other things that connect us in this world continue to make up the fabric of what it means to be alive. This year, I’m thankful for the filmmakers and subjects who have shared parts of themselves with me, a stranger.