Opening this week across the UK, Movie Ramblings’ David Watson caught up with director Karen Guthrie to talk about her bittersweet, multi-award winning documentary The Closer We Get.

 

DW: Really loved the film but, as someone with some experience of stroke (I had a couple in my twenties), I approached the film with some trepidation. Films about disability tend to be about one of two things generally. You get films that are practically video diaries about people dealing with the day-to-day existence and inspirational disease-of-the-week movies. And your film really isn’t either of those. What was the process, how did The Closer We Get come about?

Karen Guthrie: I had this original film in mind with my mum and we did the first interview for that three weeks before her stroke and you see that in the film. We had this idea to make a light, funny documentary where we got in a car and drove around the world tracking down people who had known or worked with my dad. Or partied with him. Because this was a man who had sort of, in a way, hidden the most exciting parts of his life from us. He’s still very much in our lives but we thought this was going to be an interesting take on his story, to leave him back home, and take this trip of imagination, connecting with his past life. So we had this idea. And we told my dad we were going to do it. And he took it on the chin. And then three weeks later, the car crash of the stroke.

And then years passed before we readdressed the fact that we were going to make a film together. And that really was me making an offhand comment on a boring afternoon, I said to my mum: “What about that film we were going to make? You still fancy it?” And by then my dad’s living in the house, he’d moved back in. And she went: “Yeah, lets get on with it.” So we had a very different film now in front of us because she was more or less housebound and by then quadriplegic whereas when she’d first come home, she’d had some mobility and was able to feed herself. So we start the film with her really at her poorest physical health and we have to accept that what we are going to be dealing with is almost what you can produce in a room. It’s the energy of that person, in a room, and the tension between the relationships that are in that room. So that’s the heart of the film; what is it actually like to sit with time to kill as a disabled person, looking at the end of your life and with a lot of unfinished business? And a lot to say actually. I think my mum, at that point, didn’t have anything to lose and I think her attitude to the film was that it was something she enjoyed. She looked forward to it every week. And she had no idea what the finished film was going to be, I don’t think she thought she would survive to see it. But I think for her, the process of making it was just as therapeutic as it was for me. It was a chance to be heard.

 

DW: It does seem to be quite a cathartic experience, for everyone involved. And it does come across that your mum is quite vibrant, quite strong and a bit…nippy. But she seems bitterer before the stroke.

KG: That’s a strong observation. Even her sister, who I watched the film with recently, said: “You know, I look at Ann in that interview before her stroke and I see this lined, tense face. And I look at her in her wheelchair and se’s got this serenity she’d never had before.” And I think that’s one of the more complex messages of the film that I wanted to share; the joy of that sort of situation happening, the serenity, the peacefulness that you can actually experience after something that seismic has happened to you. And that’s not to say…even when were filming she would have periods of real depression and anxiety and, of course, you don’t see much of that in the film. But the truth is, most of those feelings had happened in the years immediately after the stroke. And by the time we started filming I think she’d found a different place to exist in. I almost at times wondered if she had the ability to levitate from her body and see beyond the restraints of her condition. And this was all news to me.

She was the kind of woman who, before the stroke, would say: “If that ever happens to me, you know what to do. Don’t put me on a life support.” She was the classic old person, cycling around and very physically active. And one of the fascinating things is, it’s always those sorts of people who, when they’re under the cosh…she actually found a strength in herself that she didn’t think she had. It’s a bit of a diversion but when I screened the film in America and at Toronto, like there is here, there’s quite a lot of activity around choices around dying. Choices around how you cope with the end of your life. And the people around you, whether or not they should help, etc. And I could feel myself being pulled into some of those debates. And actually, I always want to say this is a film about being prepared to recognise that people themselves don’t know what reserves they have inside themselves. So I’d rather see energy put into finding ways to encourage those qualities. In both the patient or survivor and those around them. Let’s try and develop resilience and inner resources that mean we can actually enjoy those years. I can honestly say that I think my mother had some of the happiest years of her life. Which is extraordinary. She couldn’t move at all but she had a wit, that had been there all along, but it really started to emerge and I felt like I was meeting a new person.

My sister, who is a mother, never stopped grieving for the grandmother her children had lost, she never stopped. And it was never going to be easy for her to relate to the new mum. And I think I had some capacity to say: “I find this new person fascinating! And I want to get to know them.” And I think you see that in the film. I was really fascinated with her in those years and I wanted to show her that she still had something to give us all. She was still our mother. While we’re feeding and caring for her, you still have to show that person that they can still mother or father you. And I think she could do that because of the powerfulness of the way she was in the world in those years. And some of those things don’t fit in a regular film about disability. Had I been a regular documentarian, working in this field, I would probably have painted a more predictable picture of the situation/

 

DW: You mentioned not being an ordinary documetarian. This does seem, obviously very personal, but very different from your other work. But it’s also very much about family. It’s quite bold to turn the camera on yourself.

KG: Some of the material that goes back 20 years is from video installations I was making as a young artist. And, of course, it shows me now that I was trying to make this film. I just didn’t have any of the skills or experience to make a film then. Or the distance on the situation with my father so I could tell that story as objectively as it needed to be told. I would have made a very different film 25 years ago. But family and ordinariness is a theme in a lot of my work. I’m fascinated by the things that seem to be the dullest or the most commonplace. The dullest people are usually the most fascinating and my parents considered themselves to be incredibly unremarkable. And that’s a gift for a filmmaker because it’s your job to show what’s magical about two old people sitting in their front room.

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DW: Talking about the ordinary, the film is very much about this extraordinary situation your family found itself in.

KG: But because it was everyday to us, because we’d lived it, it was only when I told it to a new person in my life and their jaw would drop that I would remind myself how extraordinary this situation was. But for us it was just another example of the sort of authority that my dad had in the family. Ok, that happened, it was pretty shitty but everyone just got on with it. We continued, in a way the trauma of Campbell’s discovery. The video installations I made in my twenties came immediately after I discovered about Campbell. Ad this film started after the stroke. So it’s clearly a need in me, an instinct, to deal with those traumas by making work about them and I think as an artist I’m trained to draw on my resources to describe the world and to get through difficult periods of my life. I’ve always done that and it felt very natural.

 

DW: What struck me about the film was two things: your mother’s resilience, there’s an incredible moment when she’s really beating herself up for not immediately loving this new child your father’s just introduced into the mix, and your father’s wilful ignorance. It’s almost like he’s blinkered, that he’s not looking around and seeing the quiet devastation he causes wherever he goes. But you kinda like him because he’s funny and gregarious but you kinda want to slap him as well.

KG: I wanted the audience to feel the ambivalence about him that we always felt. That’s your mission as a filmmaker, that the audience relates. I want the audience to relate to him like I do which is that he is unfathomable. Very frustrating a lot of the time…but extremely lovable. And that his authority fills a room and that’s how it’s been since I was a child. And I think you feel that in the film. This is a man who’s got away with murder. And his family still love him and want to spend time with him. But how is that possible? He and my mother had very complimentary characteristics. She was not someone who wanted emotional confrontation. She didn’t articulate the situation terribly well, she had her own conditioning and was emotionally quite repressed and, together, that meant that when the situation with Campbell arose, it was very complex for them to navigate and they never successfully dissociated because they were both extremely ambivalent. I don’t think they wanted to split up. They were still in love. They were in love to the end of my mother’s life. And you’ve got to look at that in 360 degrees and comprehend how complex a 50 year relationship of that nature can be. I want the audience to be as flabbergasted as I was by Dad’s story in the film. It layered on the tenderness he suddenly showed to Ann after so many years of brutalising her. We have this incredibly tender relationship in the room…and yet we see that man is still operating on that other level beyond the room and that’s as exciting to the audience as it was shocking to me. This is not the 78-year-old man you think he is.

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