Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell in FLAMES


“Leaf by leaf, page by page
Throw this book away
All the sadness all the rage
Throw this book away
Rip out the binding, tear the glue
All of the grief we never ever knew
We had it all along
Now it’s smoke…”  

– “Smoke”, Ben Folds

In 1997, Ben Folds Five wrote the lyrics above about a couple considering the book of their relationship…and burning it to cinders. They tear out every fight, every kiss, every promise, and every question. Torch it all, and stand in the smoke that becomes of it.

If there’s a film companion to “Smoke”, it might well be FLAMES.

New York artists Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker begin this film as a pair of fools in love. Their days are spent coming up with new artistic endeavours, their evenings a messy tumble of limbs and blankets. One night, Zefrey suggests they head off for parts unknown, leaving their fate in the hands of a dart thrown at a map, and decide they will film the whole adventure as a project to be determined. The trip goes about as well as you’d expect for something so impulsive.

When they return, the captured footage is combined with images of the aftermath. The result is a meditation on a partnership called FLAMES.

This is a documentary that will likely enrage some audiences.

Much as the way being in such close quarters tests any relationship, being in such close quarters can also test a viewer. When the test scores come in, some may come away from Zefrey and Josephine filled with thoughts of narcissism, pretension, and artifice.

However, while FLAMES is sometimes difficult to stay with, the ultimate experience is fascinating, introspective, and bittersweet.

More than once, the audience is left to question the authenticity of what they are seeing. Some moments feel re-constructed, artificial, and staged. And yet, with any piece of art there is a certain swirling of brushstrokes that combine truth and interpretation. That swirl is FLAMES. There are several moments that don’t feel truthful, but that doesn’t mean they are dishonest. Quite the contrary, actually. They are moments of pain and insecurity, recreated in excruciating detail. That’s deep dedication to one’s art – after all, who in their right mind would tear open a wound just to show perfect strangers how badly it hurts?

The work that Decker and Throwell have hung in the cinematic gallery for us is like a strip poker game in a shop window, or a slow march across the Brooklyn Bridge dressed as fish – odd, honest, challenging, and fucked-up.

FLAMES is a meditation on a partnership from the inside out; a praise and a pan wrapped up in one cringe-worthy package.

We’ve all had our Josephines, all had our Zefreys. They might not have been so arty or so naked, but we identify them. If we were to look through the smoke and flames of what we burned with these people, the fuel of the fire would probably look an awful lot like this film.


FLAMES plays at Hot Docs 2017 tonight, April 30th, 9:15 pm at The Scotiabank Theatre. It plays again on Monday, May 1st, 12:30, at Hart House Theatre, and once more on Friday, May 5th, 9:15pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox. (official website)