We’re in an interesting age for the medium of documentary film. In the age of social media, more and more of us are documenting our own lives: our successes, our failures, the moments we fall in love, and the moments we get our hearts broken. So if we are documenting our own lives – whether it needs documenting or not – what can a filmmaker capture that we can’t capture ourselves?
After watching SELF(LESS) PORTRAIT, my answer is “an awful lot”.
This Canadian documentary follows a reasonably simple formula: gather ordinary people one-by-one, sit them in front of a plain white backdrop, and allow them to tell their stories. Some are stories of family, some of personal achievement. Some are stories of wants, and some are stories of fears. Subjects come and go, intercut with other subjects in a way that creates a mosaic of life in the 21st Century. There are no tricks and few frills. Just person after person telling us about how they have lived, loved, and lost.
SELF(LESS) PORTRAIT answers the question of “why are documentarians needed?” by deftly capturing tone and expression as these people recount their most intimate moments. They could easily post these stories on their Facebook walls…but if they did, we might not see the way they lean forward, or the way their eyes tear-up, or the way their hand trembles. So few of us truly listen to people speak, so it’s easy to miss things like these. Not just the story someone tells us but the way they tell us. By eliminating everything except the subject, SELF(LESS) PORTRAIT forces us to look and listen. As a result, we are drawn far deeper into these confessions.
In profoundly intimate ways we find ourselves feeling proud of the professional wrestler. We also feel sorry for the girl whose boyfriend died in a car crash. We are taken aback by the revolutionary. And we are hopeful and angered by the multiple victims of child abuse.
The result is something that plays like installation art – something that good be playing on a loop in a gallery for people to drift in and out of…spending just a few moments bearing witness to these stories, or losing hours. While almost comically simple in concept, this documentary is confined by time or place, and as such it feels both reflective and immediate all at once. We engage with person after person who we’ve never met and do so because time and again they remind us of someone we know, or someone that we used to know.
SELF(LESS) PORTRAIT underlines the thing that social media eliminates most from our interactions with those around us: intimacy. While we remain in closer contact than ever before, we are increasingly eschewing the intimacy associated when someone we love has a life-changing moment. It’s intimacy we get by looking them in the eye, or hearing the tone of their voice. It cannot be replicated in ones and zeroes, nor conveyed by the light of an LED.
To that end, SELF(LESS) PORTRAIT reminds us of the people we care about and suggests that we think about the intimacy we are missing.
SELF(LESS) PORTRAIT plays Hot Docs 2013 tomorrow, Sunday April 27 – 6:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It plays The Lightbox twice more: First on Monday April 28th – 8:45pm, and once more on Sunday May 4th – 3pm.