"I Want to Look into a Story They Told Me": Two Films in Search of One Thing That Find Something Else

A powerful documentary approach can be found in "Kate Plays Christine" and "The Wind Knows That I'm Coming Back Home."
James Lattimer

The making of most documentaries pivots on one central question, a question that ultimately determines the nature of the film: do you hit upon a story and set out in search of it or do you let the story find you? It’s easy to see why the former approach enjoys such currency, as the biggest unknown is already clear from the outset. With a pre-determined story already in place, it’s now about working out the best way to tell it: locating the right people and making sure they say the right things on camera, scouring archives to find the footage that will lend credence to your argument, pinpointing the locations and landmarks with the greatest illustrative appeal. It’s an approach that’s been applied to countless subjects, people, and places and even brought forth some great films, although it still throws up some inconvenient questions along the way. What happens to the thornier statements the camera also captures, the footage that complicates rather than supports, the places unwilling to melt into the background? What do you have to hide or play down to keep the story afloat and to what extent are you obliged to indicate you’re doing so? And can this top-down approach really do justice to any given subject? Surely there are situations and events that resist having a narrative structure imposed on them, stories with too many gaps or twists to be easily told, places that defy initial impressions? All filmmaking hinges on judicious selection, but then not all filmmaking purports to be about fact. What’s accepted without question in fiction demands greater scrutiny when the story is supposed to be real. 

While there’s no shortage of great documentaries in tune with vagaries of reality, there are far fewer which also deliver a riposte to the pre-conceived plot. Yet this year has already produced two excellent examples of how the flexibility of fiction can be used to highlight documentary rigidity; two films that force the viewer to engage with the same question of who is filming what and why which every documentary should be able to withstand. Both send their protagonists to a particular place in search of a story, one that is to form the basis of a fiction film. Both protagonists act like they’re in a documentary, although their efforts are staged, and both are real people but also playing a role. Both look in vain for the best angles on their stories and discover the definitive angle doesn’t exist. These documentaries may be fake, but their insights are genuine: whether on the Florida coastline or a Chilean island, some things will always remain out of reach.  

When the screen goes black at the start of José Luis Torres Leiva’s El viento sabe que vuelvo a casa and the title of the film appears, it’s no accident that it coincides with his protagonist saying “I want to look into a story they told me.” The story in question is more or less an archetype: the tale of a boy and girl who meet, fall in love, and want to be together, but are forbidden from doing so, whereupon they disappear without trace. This is to form the plot for a film, which the protagonist, a director from Santiago, hopes to make. He has travelled to Meulín, a remote island off the coast of southern Chile, with two things in mind: to track down the real-life inspiration for this romantic tale and to find local people willing to play the two leading roles. According to the hand-written sign hung up at the auditions, this future film has the same title as the one we are watching: El viento sabe que vuelvo a casa ("The Wind Knows That I'm Coming Back Home") is thus at once a fiction based on real life and a documentary of its own making, or, as will become clear, perhaps something in between.

Regardless of whom the director asks, somehow no details about the alleged star-crossed lovers are forthcoming. One schoolgirl being auditioned says that stories like that are not told on the archipelago and a woman who owns a farm on the island’s southern tip can’t recall every having heard of such a tale. As the director gently presses her, it’s as if he hopes her own story might mesh with the one he wants to film. Her last name is Manquicheo and her husband’s is Soto, which placed their union under considerable pressure, for those who carry indigenous surnames are not supposed to marry those who do not. But their love persisted and her mother-in-law actually came to accept their marriage; even deep-seated animosities don’t necessarily follow expected patterns. When the director comes across another mixed marriage, the situation is the same, the man and his wife have never heard of a couple fleeing tradition, life on the island just doesn’t lend itself to the plot of a film. It’s no different when the director changes tack and starts quizzing those he meets about anyone who might have mysteriously disappeared. He hears about the girl who vanished to Argentina after lying dead for two days and the man with nine siblings who joined a Brazilian circus before going to ground. There are stories here wherever you look, just not the one the director deems worthy of being told.

For someone who’s come to this place with such fixed intentions, it’s surprising how easily Meulín overwhelms the director, there are so many other impressions that the plot he’s searching for frequently feels like an afterthought. Each audition he holds and each casual conversation he conducts brings new details of the setting to light: accounts of families dispersed across neighbouring islands, the topography of the mestizo/indigenous divide, the customs which say that the nine nights following a death are to be spent in prayer and a mischievous pig must be punished with a spiked collar. Bit by bit, the camera detaches itself from his perspective to find details of its own: hands clasped round teacups, horses ridden into the sea, dance parties by night, cows wandering school playgrounds, the light of the moon over the surface of a bay. None of these constitute a story per se, it’s more that each observation is a single brushstroke in the portrait of an island. There’s a sense that the place itself is ultimately dictating the director’s movements far more than any impetus of his own; if some story is indeed lurking here, it will find him and not the other way round.

It’s hard to put your finger on when exactly it becomes clear which El viento sabe que vuelvo a casa we’re actually watching. It’s more of a feeling that gradually creeps up on you, the unshakeable feeling that the director himself is equally a character in a film, a character in this film, which you might term a cautionary tale on what happens to those who set out in search of pre-determined stories. The choice of the leading actor is an apt one, even if he’s asked to do things he wouldn’t be likely to do in real life, as venerable Chilean documentarian Ignacio Agüero is hardly the sort of filmmaker who’d insist a plot be adhered to as precisely as his character suggests here. Agüero’s a pretty decent actor, actually, and his exasperation in the final scene feels genuine, the exasperation of realizing that reality won’t ever conform with your plans. Yes, an octopus has eight legs, but life still includes boys who insist they have six. 

The pre-formed plot at the heart of Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine may not be an archetype, but it appears just as clear cut: the true story of a twenty-nine year old Sarasota news reporter named Christine Chubbuck who shot herself live on air in 1974. It’s a story that’s been largely forgotten, which is probably why a film of it is to be made, a 70s period piece whose lurid sets and costumes are closer to the realm of bygone soap operas than the greyer tones of real life. But this is not the film we see to begin with, but rather a film that documents the first stages of its making, although this time it’s an actress, not a director, that takes on the leading role. Kate Lyn Sheil is hardly unknown, but hardly a star either, and perhaps this will be the one part that moves her beyond all the endlessly subtle performances of the past. As she herself says, portraying someone from real-life won’t be easy, but it’s a challenge she’s willing to accept.  

Kate travels to Sarasota to prepare for the role and wanders through the city alone; while there must be someone filming her, it’s as if there’s no one actually there. Her approach is two-pronged: to pinpoint the details of Christine’s life that will inform her portrayal and to feel what it might have been like to be in her skin. She scours microfiches, scrutinizes newspapers, quizzes a local historian; gets a spray tan, has a wig fitted, makes enquires about purchasing a gun. There are as many potential reasons for Christine’s suicide as there are ways for Kate to tap into her feelings. As Kate visits the club Christine used to frequent, speaks with her former colleagues, or even starts roaming through Sarasota in character, explanations for Christine’s actions wait at every turn: the fact that she had just had an ovary removed, her professional frustration, her lack of a boyfriend, the pressures of sexism, clinical depression. There’s no one that doesn’t have an opinion on Christine’s story, no report that doesn’t offer a justification, no facet of her personality that remains unaddressed.

It would be tempting to think of Christine’s story as the sum of all the angles on her person, but this making-of reveals that the opposite is true. A film crew does finally come into view and Kate does indeed start playing Christine, but whether on set or off it, this is a record of frustration rather than resolution, of Kate’s gradual realization that regardless of how thorough she is, Christine will forever be one step ahead. There’ll always be one more detail, one more interpretation, one more place to be processed, but no matter how much Kate tries to add flesh to the bones of the plot, Christine’s body refuses to emerge. The other actors are as willing as anyone else to give their take on Christine’s fate and they feel her as intensely as Kate does, when they talk about her their monologues carry such emotion, they could double up as the perfect audition piece. Perhaps the only sure thing about Christine’s story is the feeling it induces in others, a structure for channelling surplus affect that works just as well for those acting as those who are not. Among all these blurring boundaries, it’s only the film scenes that are truly unambiguous, an oddly comforting fictional refuge from the uncertainties of the real.

But how real is the real here anyway? The way Sarasota is shot already makes everything feel heightened, intangible, like a place from, well, a film. There’s never any danger of Kate melting into the background, it’s more like the background has been designed with her in mind, as if the whole city were one huge stage set whose goal is to make her shine. Each location she visits finds a new method of singling her out in the frame: the white walls and big windows of the pristine house she moves into, the turquoise water and grey concrete of the swimming pool, the throbbing blue lights of the club, the ochre tones of the wig shop walls that match her t-shirt. If the camera keeps shooting her like it would an actress, maybe it’s just trying to get across that she’s acting the entire time, playing the role of Kate alongside that of Christine.

Once such thoughts come to mind, Kate’s preparations seem to follow an awfully tidy trajectory, the sort of meticulously fabricated search for clues that has structured countless films fictional or not, although this quest builds towards an image and nothing more. Equal care has been taken in putting together Kate’s manufactured character, with each aspect of her personality neatly dovetailing with Christine’s: two women wanting to be seen, two sets of unhealthy impulses, two industries not renowned for their feminism, two ages that carry expectation in their wake. Just like in some documentaries, there’s no need to worry about all the things that don’t actually fit. By the final scene, exasperation has given way to outright anger, although the parallels between the two women are so well constructed it’s hard to make out quite whose anger it is. Does it belong to Kate or rather to Christine, or is it simply a more violent manifestation of what Ignacio Agüero feels in Chile? The harsh, yet necessary realization that pressing the issue won’t make any difference, for reality itself is always just out of reach.

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