Chase Whiteside is an American nonfiction filmmaker who recently co-directed, co-produced and co-edited his feature debut, América (2018), in collaboration with fellow director/producer/editor Erick Stoll. Their movie depicts three brothers rejoined together under one roof in Colima, Mexico to share in caretaking for their 90-something-year-old grandmother, América, who suffers from dementia. Stoll and Whiteside’s film cycles between scenes depicting their caretaking duties, their intermittent unease about living under the same roof once again, and their performance-oriented professional talents (Diego, who provides occasional voiceover, does shows for tourists in Puerto Vallarta; Rodrigo, whose home serves as the film’s primary location, leads sound immersion therapy sessions; and Bruno, who arrives last, is a circus performer). América screens at the Brattle Theatre, presented by the DocYard, on Monday, Feb 10, at 7 pm; both filmmakers will attend and participate in a post-film conversation to be moderated by Abby Sun, guest curator of the DocYard’s current season.
The following interview was conducted earlier this week by phone, and has been condensed and edited for clarity.
DIG: I’d like to start with the prologue. For about five minutes we see Diego working as a performer in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for audiences that seem to be made up primarily of U.S. tourists. I know you and Erick Stoll have explained that much of that footage came from a shoot for a now-abandoned film “about tourist culture” in that area. But in this new context, as an entry point, the scene is at once both narratively-oriented [by focusing on action and character] and rather opaque [by not explicating its connection to the “main” story of the film]. From an editorial perspective, how did you end up there?
CW: I think a lot of more experienced filmmakers or editors would have taken the simpler narrative approach of starting later, and not having such a long prologue. But we were attracted to it for a few reasons.
Part of it was that that was how we came to know the story—we were working on a different film, and as part of that we met Diego: Our first [meeting] with him, both as a subject on camera and as a friend, was when he was working in Vallarta as a circus performer. And that was a very different place for him compared to where he is for most of the film. So when we looked back at that footage, it seemed to create this kind of “zero state”, before the rest of the events of the film, and his life: He’s out on the beach, working but with low responsibilities, away from family, somewhat lacking in purpose. And all of that changed when he went home to be with América: Suddenly he’s not alone, and has the responsibilities of adulthood, and has a purpose in life. So for us, his going home was like growing up, in a way.
But it’s also [depicting] how our own filmic language—this detached, distant, observational, landscape photography style that we had worked in before, and that we thought we were going to continue to work in—was kind of broken by the magical arrival of América, as a character… In her first true close-up, she apologizes and says, Sorry, I’m just waking up right now. Which is as much an apology to Diego as it is an apology to the audience watching the film—like, sorry it took so long to get around to this, but here I am! You feel an almost ethnographic, very objective lensing until that moment, where the first magic instinct bubbles through.
I don’t think there’s any one reason [the prologue] had to be there, so much as there were a dozen things that we were attracted to in keeping it. And it always worked for us.
To stay on the prologue for a minute, I think one reason I found it so impactful—and perhaps you were referring to this, in saying that “more experienced” filmmakers might’ve cut it—is that, without this section, América would be a very controlled, focused movie: There would be one location, one small group of characters, and one particular “conflict” [the brothers caretaking for their grandmother in Colima].
But instead, with the prologue, your film sets off all these other dichotomies and themes that aren’t even really explored much in the film but still do, as a result, hang over it. Like I’m thinking specifically, for example, about the urban/rural dynamic that it sets up [between Vallarta and Colima], or the way the prologue introduces the spectre of the U.S. into the film via all the American iconography that Diego employs in his performances for tourists [see image above]. Could you talk about how the prologue sets up these concepts which are then reflected, even if only indirectly, once the film settles down in Colima?
The dichotomies are there. America as this word; this name for this beautiful older feminine Mexican woman, but then also the word for machismo, violence, Trump. I think we were always attracted to destabilizing the meaning of that word by titling the film this way. Another part of it is that the prologue takes place at a crossing point where you have all these American tourists within Mexico; which then serves as a bridge for us, as Americans who are coming down to film in Mexico, to eventually go to Colima to find this family and this story.
In terms of dichotomies, the other thing that comes to my mind is just “age”. People at different points of their life move and live and look so differently. And yet I think you can see that Diego and América have so much in common. And in a lot of films, when there’s a contrast like that, they play up the differences for humor—Look how different old people are. And that really wasn’t what we witnessed, or were interested in, at all. It was more like, How is it that América and these layabout, bohemian, twenty-something artists she’s living with share so much in the tempo and rhythm of their daily lives? I don’t know if that answers the question or not, but those are definitely things we were thinking about.
I just watched this movie for the second time, after seeing it at a festival in 2018. During that first viewing, América seemed to me a mostly narrative piece—a story about this particular family as they work through transitional moments of their respective lives. Watching it the second time, that was still true, but what stuck out even more was its overarching focus on “performance”: The brothers, respectively, do shows, circuses, and group therapy, all of which require a certain theatricality. And of course care work, being labor, has a performative element to it too, especially when being done for a loved one.
Yeah, when you’re caretaking, you can’t be frustrated all the time, even in frustrating situations. The person you’re caretaking for is also, in a way, your audience. Or at least that’s often the case. And it’s true that every member of that family, in some way or another, is a performer, whether professionally or creatively.
Also, the meditation scenes [with Rodrigo and his partner Cristina] always worked for us as a breather in a film that, despite its very controlled compositions and limited edits, is kind of a talkie! It’s full of dialogue. So those scenes were a nice way to take a breath and let the significance of the conversations we’ve been hearing really gel. To let you stew for a while in what has been revealed between the family, and what it may or may not mean for each of them.
But while that’s very true, it was also nonetheless true for me that, especially during that second viewing, a lot of the dialogue played like background noise—and that was at least in part because I was so focused on the incredible physicality of the film. When it’s not depicting the actual physical labor of care work, América is often depicting one or more of the brothers practicing their various acrobatic talents, or even just working their jobs. So, along those lines: Did you feel like the brothers were actively “working” for the camera in any way?
I do think there’s a performative aspect that everyone takes on when they know they’re being filmed. I’m sure that Diego was a nicer, more attentive, more careful, and more tender caretaker when he knew he was being filmed. Which is not to say that he wasn’t doing the work of caretaking in any worse or lesser way when he wasn’t being filmed—it’s just that when a camera is on, that does invariably change you.
I think the scene that really gives it away most is when [Diego and Bruno] have a big fight. It’s funny: English-language audiences often ask us afterwards, Did you write that? And we say, No, we’re not that good at writing. But I’m always surprised by the question. On the one hand, I wonder, is it maybe because Diego is affecting the characteristics of a telenovela performance—to mock the dramatic tone and approach of Bruno—and that Spanish-language audiences can perceive that more easily? And does that kind of mocking performance-within-a-performance make [other] people think it’s all fake, in a way?
But actually, I think it’s a more obvious thing: Because a camera is there, they’re fighting harder and more visibly than usual. And of course they are! Anyone with siblings knows, if you’re having a fight with your sibling, and somebody is filming it, you’re going to be doubly motivated to win and humiliate them. I think that’s what’s happening in that scene. So I had no illusions… I didn’t think they’d somehow forget the cameras were there after a few months of filming, or anything like that. But I also don’t think it’s any less real because the camera’s there. It just heightens the pitch.
For me this all calls back to an earlier scene in the film, where Diego performs his acrobatic tricks for América on a tree in the backyard. For me that scene was so crucial to this performance theme, in part because there are certain edits that suggest it probably didn’t play out in reality exactly how it plays out on screen.
Oh, it’s a documentary—nothing plays out the way it seems! You’re filming for three years, and editing it down to a 72-minute film. I always say that editing vérité footage is like sculpting: You take away until it has a shape. For that scene with Diego performing in the tree, we shot it from one side, then we shot it from the other side, and you edit it together into one moment, with sound from one moment… But in this process of condensing, the goal is to find elegance, right? That was a scene that happened more than once. There were times when it didn’t happen as elegantly—and those aren’t in the film.
One element I find very special about this film is how reflective it is. Every concept or idea suggested by dialogue, images, or editing leads back to another concept or idea, and then to another, and in a manner quite intuitive. In this moment, for example, I was moved solely by the extent of those reflections: The scene itself is a constructed reality, made by filmmakers; depicting a performer who, in his professional work done outside the film, also constructs realities for a living; and who also, in his own words, is trying to help craft a certain “constructed reality” for his unwell grandmother, who he recognizes is no longer cognizant of the actual reality they share. Which brings these many ostensibly disconnected subjects into a unified, dramatic whole.
And you know, there are a lot of people who are dealing more directly with performance as the central focus of their documentary work than us. People like Robert Greene, Kitty Green—the Greens [Ed. note: no relation]. I don’t think it’s as central to what we’re interested in as filmmakers; but there’s no question that with the brothers being performers, it became imbued into every aspect of the film.
Certainly in that scene, there’s a cross between Diego’s professional work as a performer, and his performance as a caretaker, and his role as the subject of this film. There’s a lot to unpack, but at the same time, I think the reasons we were attracted to it didn’t have anything to do with that… for us, in that scene, it was more about how his work to make people happy was now being brought into the domestic space, and to see that coupled with [América’s] tender, maternalistic instinct to worry about him.
There’s a particular landscape image that recurs throughout the film, usually between scenes. Is that a volcano?
Yes, the Volcán de Colima.
It comes to take a very significant place in the rhythm of the film. Could you tell me about that?
It may make no sense, but for us the volcano was like this center of gravity that almost, in a weird way, represented América. It’s calling the brothers back home; calling Diego back; calling Bruno back. They needed to be here for this, her final years of life. The gravity of Colima, as a place that brought everyone back, felt represented by that volcano.
The other side of it is that we were really not trying to make a film that was [a] cultural analysis of Mexico. There’s a long history of atrocious films about Mexico by American directors, like Cartel Land (2015), where they tend to put a lot of stereotypical iconography regarding Mexican life and culture into the film. And we were not interested in doing anything like that at all. In our film, you’re not going to see tortillas being made, or a mariachi band, or any iconography that is commonly used to represent Mexican culture in [work made] outside Mexico. It was much better to connect with something more specific—in this case Colima, and this family. And for all that to happen in the shadow of this volcano was powerful, and immediate.
You can also see some of this thinking in how we used the mangoes. [Ed. note: Shots of mangoes, seen growing on and falling off a tree in América’s backyard, also recur with regularity]. They are images we wanted in the film because Colima is this place where the homes are very open, and nothing is closed off, so all that felt very much part of the texture and life of being there.
Right, and this focus on the natural landscape, once the film arrives in Colima, is perhaps why I felt the urban/rural dichotomy was so pronounced, despite only a few minutes of the film taking place in an urban space.
The urban dichotomy is really only a function of the prologue, right? Diego has gone off to this industrialized, urbanized place that Americans go down to. And yeah, it’s beautiful, and has a beach, but it’s away from nature, and artificial… like, if we had made the film that we didn’t end up making, it would’ve been filled with the worst club music.
I don’t think we ever quite thought about it as “urban/rural” so much as thinking about it as the synthetic and alienating tourist town that Diego went off to [versus] a place that was very much not that. Or, more simply: away from home, and then home. And that isn’t an idea that was central to us, either. But I do think that it’s there in the film for people who want to suss it out, and that we were aware of it.
I do think the content of an image can have more than just what’s happening in the scene, and more than just a beautiful composition. And trying to find whatever broader significance can come from an image has always been a debate for us, within our process—to ask ourselves, what does this image say, beyond what it most obviously communicates?
To wrap this up, I’d like to say that even while looking at it from new angles, the film remains an exceptional narrative work totally on its surface—a truly dramatic piece.
This has been a conversation about some of the more abstract elements of filmmaking and editing, so it is worth pointing out that our starting point was: We want to make a movie that tells a story, and makes sense. That wasn’t a mushy vérité of purely abstract feeling. And that did require some aesthetic compromise—I think, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have had any voice over narration [as opposed to a few instances of it]. So to get it to that point, where it truly narratively functioned, was really what took the most time.