Karen Guthrie has returned to the director's chair with her new documentary The Closer We Get, which is her most powerful and personal movie to date.
Closer We Get received its European Premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last night, where it has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Film Award.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, the challenges of filming such a personal movie, and what lies ahead.
- You are back in the director's chair with The Closer We Get, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
The Closer We Get largely documents the period of time that I spent with my parents - both of which are fairly elderly - in the town that I grew up in. I was brought back home because my mother had had a very sudden and devastating stroke and I was part of the care giving situation around her; every other week I was dropping my own life and I found myself back in a room with both of my parents.
My parents had been separated for a long time at this point and, after the stroke, my father had actually moved back into my mother's house and became one of her carers. Therefore, I found myself in a room with people that I hadn't spent a lot of time with in thirty years (laughs) and I started to unravel the family story through them, through what was going on at the time, and through the past stories that we had all shared.
- The movie sees you return to the director's chair for the film, so where did this project start for you? And what made you want to tackle such a personal subject?
I work as an artist and a filmmaker and I suppose, for me, many of my creative ideas come from looking at my own life and my own interaction with my family and my friends. I was quite excited by the idea... I knew that I was far enough away now from the real pain in my family story - which we do talk about in the film - to treat it with more objectivity. I could circle around and tell a story that was free from anger, free from resentment, and in a way that could really engage other people as well.
I suppose I realised that I had this fantastic story that only I could tell and that I was now in a position where I could probably tackle it. For me, it didn't feel that strange for me to do it. Also, when you are going through something as traumatic as a stroke, you have lost the map, you are no longer censoring yourself, and you are no longer as inhibited. I think a lot of the strength of the film comes from the fact that the emotional material is raw and it is real; you trust that I am feeling this now.
I wanted to do that and I felt compelled to do that while I was going through this - it was almost like writing a diary. I knew that I had to record this as it was changing me and I knew that it was significant. I didn't know how the film would shape itself for quite a long time, but I knew that doing the actual recording and the documentation with my mum and my dad was the key really.
- I was reading that your mother's stroke changed the movie that you were going to make (originally about why your father left). So how did the direction of the movie change?
My mother and I had this little plan to make this funny film that was about my dad's other lives; we would have gone and met people that he had worked with and knew. We would have done a little road trip around his life and gone to Africa and gone up North and met his school friends. So we had this fanciful plan, which was of course stopped in its tracks by her stroke and we didn't think about it again for years.
When she told me that she did want to restart the film, by now she is in a seriously compromised health condition post her stroke, I knew that we were going to have to start the film in that room because that was the only place she was in. I knew that I had a very limiting set of circumstances but it really did focus my mind; at the very most, we could go upstairs and film my dad but it was a really domestic situation to film in. Of course, that is what makes other people recognise themselves in that situation because everyone has a home, everyone has parents, and many people find themselves in a room finding it difficult to relate to their parents after a long time away.
I had material from twenty-five years ago, which was work I had film for art installations when I was working with my co-producer Nina Pope. In my early twenties, I was filming a lot of the stuff that you see in the film and, in a way, I think I was trying to make the film that I have made now. I had a lot of footage from the past but it was only after quite a long period of working with my editor Alice Powell, that we started to separate the strands of the film; the personal voiceover, which is mine and my perspective of what is happening, and then we have a very gripping yarn, which is what is going on in my father's life now vs what you actually see in the room between he, mum and me. So you had these strands that you are weaving together in the film.
My big ambition was to make a film that could be both a personal story that was real, honest, and told from my point of view but also make a story that was really compelling for other people to watch, really get their teeth into and enjoy. I didn't want to make a depressing film, I wanted to make a film that made people laugh and cry and feel real emotion.
- How surprised were you when your mother said that she wanted to continue with the film plan? And how open was your father to having the camera turned on him?
By the time that we started to film, my mother had nothing to lose and I think that she recognised that this was now a time when people were going to listen to her; she had a lot to say in the years before and I think she never felt that she had said it and listen to. I think she recognised - as I did - that this was a unique chance for us to sit with a camera and talk. Of course, I was empowered by the camera when I was confronting my dad because these were questions, which are asked in the film, that I could have asked him twenty-five years ago but I was too scared to them.
Suddenly, I have a camera, both and I were behaving differently, and I think is really fantastic and powerful. Some people will say 'why would you need a camera to do that?' but other people would need a family service to do that; in a way, we are just using a tool to get us to talk. In a way, my father had no choice but to participate in the film because he was there in the house and we were filming all of the time.
He liked the attention a lot of the film - which might sound a bit strange - but I think he wanted his story recorded. I think he enjoyed being around me and being around mum doing this kind of work because we were killing time as we didn't know how much more time we would have together. It was about having fun, talking, spending time together, and the film really records that attitude of 'we don't know what's going to happen next week so, at the moment, we are going to talk and connect.'
- The Closer We Get is receiving its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this week, so how excited are you at being at the festival?
I love being in Edinburgh because I went to art college here and so it is in my DNA (laughs). I have screened one film here before and I so I know what good audiences we get here. My family are coming up for the screening and so that is going to be exciting - I am a little bit nerve wracked because seeing yourself on the big screen is always terrifying. My dad is going to be there as well so I am really looking forward to it.
- As a filmmaker, how crucial are festivals such as Edinburgh in giving small movie projects a platform?
Having a successful festival tour for a small independent film like The Closer We Get is really important because we don't have the distribution, we don't have a big company behind us, and we don't have lots of advertising space. We find that the festivals that we choose are really important in building the film; for example, we premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto and won the Best International Feature and the minute that happened legions of other festivals started to book in the film.
Of course, that means that your film is going to be seen internationally - and that is before you have talked about television or DVD. It is really important as a first step in getting your film out to the world.
- The movie has already played at a series of festivals, so how have you personally been finding the response to the film? I thought it was a movie about hope and survival.
I am glad. I love sitting in a room with people laughing with the film. I found it funny and I knew what I liked about the film, but until you sit in a room with perfect strangers you do not know if that will connect; especially in another country such as Canada as I wasn't sure if the humour would translate well. When it does, it is like a huge relief. There's great emotion as well.
In an audience where there are people of my age and have ageing parents, when the lights go up there are an awful lot streaky faces and many of them say to me, 'I just have to phone home.' It really touches people and makes them realise that time is running out and we can all connect better with our families. I love that sense that it turns people's attention to their own family.
- What's great about Edinburgh this year is that there are a number of great female directors on the programme this year - many making their debut. It seems like the UK is an exciting place to be as a female director at the moment.
Yes, I think that is true actually, especially in documentary as there are legions of very strong female directors working in Britain at the moment. You are not always seeing them in television but mainly in feature films and documentary feature film arena. However, I think that it is a great time because, internationally as well, there are so many great films coming out from female directors - and there's absolutely no reason why not.
- The Closer We Get is the fourth film of your directing career and they have all be documentary projects. What is about this film genre that seems to interest you so much?
There are constraints in the field of documentary - there are not many that many constraints - but there are constraints as you are dealing with what is in the real world and what is in front of you. For The Closer We Get - more than any of the other films that I have co-directed - I drew on more of a dramatic instinct; I told a story and if it was a story that I had written from my imagination. I was very liberated by how I would actually approach the drama of the story.
The film has a voiceover on it, which is different from my other films, so I had to write that as if I was writing a short story. It liberated me a lot actually, to feel that I could treat a documentary in this really creative way. It was really exciting to me because I felt more creative when making this film than I have with any of my other pieces. It is not that I am no interested in directing fiction - I am - but there is such richness in the documentary subject that I don't miss anything from narrowing myself to that genre at the moment.
- That does lead me into my next question, how trick was the editing process and having to pull all of your material together?
Because we started editing while my mother was still alive and I was caring for her, we never had more than an eight-day stint and I would go back home and up bringing more footage back in the editing suite (laughs). My editor Alice Powell - a young female editor - was fantastic. It was such an epic project for her because she had to be an emotional support as well as a technical editor; it really was an amazing achievement.
We had nearly ninety days of filmed footage across eighteen months, so we had a lot of footage and some of it was incredibly slow - as you can imagine when you are filming with old people in a room. I knew all of this footage very intimately, I love editing, and I love the process of doing it. It was a very very intense process and we had to spread it over about... we probably did about six months in total but it was spread over about eighteen months or two years.
I think that some films benefit from being edited really quickly and spontaneously, but I think that this film really benefitted from the slow burn. I spent so much time on things like the voiceover and I spent so much time tearing the material back - editing it always about what you don't show and what you leave out. I had so much material I just simmered that material down and down and made such an effort with my voiceover to make it minimalistic but still emotionally resonate. That process was a very hard one.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the second half of this year?
I'm hoping to get the film on a small cinema tour in the autumn, which would start in Scotland and include the rest of the UK. I would later come out on DVD and download.
Alongside that, I want to do a lot of outreach work with groups around stroke support, groups that working with issues around caring and ageing as I am very committed to helping the film get into those arenas and help educate people on what it is like in that aftermath and what you could do to support people in that situation better. I have a very strong educational ambition for the film; I love seeing it on the big screen in cinemas but I also want to see it in people's front rooms and community centres.
The Closer We Get has its European Premiere at EIFF on 18th & 20th June 2015 and Open City Docs on 21st June http://thecloserweget.com/'
Tagged in Edinburgh International Film Festival