Anyone who reads a Boston newspaper can tell you that our city’s filmgoers spend a lot of time considering the form of nonfiction cinema. At IFFBoston, we spend the whole week on it. The annual event screened almost 40 feature-length nonfiction works this time around (the fest itself ended days ago, but IFFBoston has events on the calendar throughout the year, so check their website). That’s enough to fill five separate dance cards, so you pick out the ones you want to see based on how attracted you are to the subjects. Most of the documentaries we saw at the festival were marked and characterized by the distinct personalities that are profiled within them. Say you want to know the story of a local bar owner who doubles as an international negotiator—then you go to see The Peacemaker, and you’re guaranteed an introduction. You really do get to know all sorts of legitimately extraordinary people. And somehow most of these movies end up feeling the same anyway.
“Nonfiction cinema” might be a form, but “profile documentaries” are definitely a genre. The format for these movies is locked down as tight as the doors on an Irish bar after closing time. The first piece is typically a set of direct-address interviews with the subject themselves. You usually get comments from their friends and family too, and maybe from some of the peers they’ve influenced as well. Ostensibly objective fly-on-the-wall footage of the subject going through their day-to-day routine—in an inevitably performative manner, because they do have a camera pointed at them—often fills the time between the individual comments. This all mingles with archival footage and background information, which are spliced into the film’s shape wherever a blank needs to be filled. The apparent goal is to create a portrait of a human being through the audiovisual recollections of both people and media. But what you’re actually receiving is a collection of the facts, figures, and photos that the given filmmaker found most interesting. That’s not a portrait of a person—it’s more like a scrapbook.
If the filmmaker finds an angle beyond the realms of biography, then they’re already one up on most others. We wrote about a few such films in our IFFBoston preview last week. Peacemaker, which we saw during the festival proper, was one more. The subject is local legend Padraig O’Malley, a published author, professor at UMASS Boston, international peace negotiator (he “brings together divided societies,” up to and including contemporary Iraq), and bar owner (Cambridge’s the Plough & Stars, to be specific, which brings people together in an altogether different manner). Director James Demo has a film that follows him from Massachusetts to Northern Kosovo, from AA meetings to international peace treaties. His friends say they don’t know what makes him tick, and the filmmaker’s angle tries to answer the query: The construction of the footage and tenor of the interviews suggest that Padraig’s old addiction to intoxicating substances—he was a drunk, by his own admission—makes him the ideal person to speak to individuals who are addicted to violent conflicts. O’Malley has long seen the connection between the two activities: He first made his bones by spending $100,000 to fly numerous representatives from both sides of the Irish Troubles to Cambridge. He got them drinking until they were all slaphappy enough to sing songs together. You could probably suss out a medically supported explanation for that process, but Padraig can break it down more simply: “I always play the Irish card.”
We begin in Kirkuk, Iraq, circa 2012, where O’Malley doesn’t seem any more anxious than usual. He’s speaking with his pleasurably pissy Irish wit intact, justifying whatever risks he might be taking (“Security is kind of a farcical thing”). From there the movie follows him home to the Red Line, where friends and background footage catch us up on his past lives. Further segments travel to a number of O’Malley’s Forums for Cities in Transition (where he hosts delegates from both sides of political conflicts, and engages them in talks that are decidedly non-ideological), as well as to adjacent efforts he’s made in the same field (other passages clue us into the work he did during the Troubles, then alongside Mandela in South Africa, before catching us up with his more recent endeavors). Meanwhile we meet his family (he’s raising a foster daughter with a longtime partner), become aware of his medicinal drug intake (enough clonazepam to shock a doctor), and even inquire about his memory (“Whole decades are a blur”). Demo searches for the answer to the central question—what makes this angry workaholic humanitarian “tick”?—the way that a reporter might. He probes through the home, through the workplace, through the hobbies, and through the watering holes. Eventually he asks the his big climactic question: Have you ever really loved anybody? During the answer, the camera zooms in closer than ever before, in case the contours of Padraig’s face reveal an answer that his words fail to provide. But it’s not intimacy that the zoom is creating. It’s just an extension of human interest—the kind that you might find in a newspaper.
At first glance, Kate Plays Christine has the same pieces as those other profiles—it was another IFFBoston selection, we should note, and the standout to our eyes—even though you probably wouldn’t classify it as such. There are direct-address interviews with professional actress Kate Lyn Sheil, who’s prepping for the role of Christine Chubbuck (a Sarasota newscaster who infamously committed suicide on air during the late 1970s). There are clips from her background via footage taken from other movies she’s performed in (The Color Wheel, Sun Don’t Shine). There are other comments sourced from her family and her collaborators to provide further context (her father is heard on a phone call, fellow actors speak about their craft). And for the fly-on-the-wall observation, the film goes from New York to Sarasota, Florida, watching Kate as she studies, internalizes, and attempts to locate the essence of a woman she never knew.
We’ll have more on the film—which is directed by Robert Greene, photographed by Sean Price Williams, and scored by Keegan DeWitt—when it’s officially released. Right now we’ll speak in generalities: Kate Plays Christine considers acting in a dense and expansive manner, documenting side subjects like Sarasota itself (visits to gun shops, tanning salons, and other local businesses prove to be almost anthropological) and the unreliable nature of historical research (one instance sees Sheil struggling to decide how much validity she should ascribe to potentially sexist news reports written by male journalists in the wake of Chubbuck’s death) in order to both complicate and illuminate its portrait of the craft. The “movie” she’s working on—a Network-influenced “soap opera”-style production—doesn’t actually exist beyond the confines of this “documentary.” The resulting work is probably best described as “staged nonfiction” (recent films by Jafar Panahi might serve as a comparison point,) with most of the footage depicting Sheil researching, running lines, and then performing in scenes. Meanwhile Sheil notes that she’s typecast in “women-on-the-verge-of-psychotic-breakdown roles,” so Greene tries to get us asking why they exist, working with the actress to simultaneously investigate the psychology of our shared cultural interest in stories about traumatized women. Most of these profile-documentary movies leave you with a better understanding of their chosen subject. Kate Plays Christine might leave you with a better understanding of why you go to see movies at all.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON, VISIT IFFBOSTON.ORG
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE PEACEMAKER, VISIT CENTRALSQUAREFILMS.COM
KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE IS SCHEDULED FOR A GENERAL RELEASE SOMETIME THIS SUMMER. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT KATEPLAYSCHRISTINE.COM