It’s a Family Affair: A Conversation with Karen Guthrie
Karen’s mother Ann suffers a devastating stroke that brings her daughter back home when she least expects it. But Karen isn’t the only one who returns to help care for Ann in the crisis: Her prodigal father, the unfathomable but endearing Ian – separated from Ann for years – also reappears. Armed with her camera, Karen seizes this last chance to confront the family story before it’s too late, to come to terms with the aftermath of the secret her father had tried – and failed – to keep from them all, and to find that Ann’s stroke has in fact thrown them all a life raft.
With candour, warmth and much unexpected humour, Karen’s role as family confidante, busybody, therapist and spy brings to her audience both a compelling story and a unique portrait of contemporary family survival.
To celebrate the release of The Closer We Get, out now on VOD and DVD, The Fan Carpet’s Phil Slatter had the chance to speak to filmmaker Karen Guthrie, she tells us about turning her personal family story into a film…
Can you tell us about how the idea of turning what was a very personal family story into a documentary came about?
I had embarked initially on making a film with my mum about my dad, but then a few weeks after I began that project she had her stroke. Some time went by and it was during her day to day care that we started to talk about the film that we had started together and she remembered it. We had a bit of a laugh about what it would be like if we made a film now, and she seemed to be interested in it. I thought, well, I’m seeing her every other week and while she was very ill, she was mentally very alive and so very funny that I thought maybe there is another way to tell this story starting in this room with her and with my dad. In a way the film was there all along but the exact circumstances in which I started filming were very unique and very limiting in a way which I found to be very creative. It was actually very inspiring to have a limited situation as you have to be creative and work harder to tell the story.
How different do you feel the film would have been if your mum hadn’t suffered her stroke?
I don’t really know but I always envisaged a documentary where you had a mum and a daughter going around the world. We’d have probably gone even to Africa chasing the story of this man and the stuff he wouldn’t tell us about and the people we hadn’t met. I think it would have been a road movie of a kind and you would still have gotten this very powerful personality of my mother but you would have seen her before in the way she was before her stroke which was a much spikier character in a way. I think it would have been a great film, but a massively different one.
Was it difficult for you to make a documentary that you were such an integral part of?
Well the other documentaries that I have made with Nina (Pope) my producer are films in which I have appeared in in some way so I was relatively used to it. Very early on I thought this is my version of this story so it will have my narrative and when I started to film myself I kind of realised it was almost impossible not to do it that way. In the scenes with my mother for example, it was almost a practical impossibility to film her without being in the shot as I had to begin or animate the conversation. So it felt very natural to me to film it in the way that I did and half the time I would set the camera up on a tripod and just walk into the shot. If I was lucky the shot would turn out well. I filmed for 88 days to make an 87 minute film so you can imagine how much footage I did actually shoot. I therefore spent so long editing that I got used to seeing myself and overtime your discomfort fades away and you realise that you’re working to serve the film, it’s not about your vanity.
So in many ways you found the film in the edit having to sift through all that footage…
Absolutely, we worked very, very hard and very creatively in the edit moving time around with the material that we had. Myself and my editor Alice Powell had a kind of epiphany at one point where we realised that we didn’t have to move through time in the same order that we shot stuff in, which is the normal way to make a documentary. We realised that the film was nothing to do with time and we could play around in order to make the story as dramatic and as crystallised as it is in a way.
Was there anything that was difficult to leave out?
Oh God yeah! There are some extras on the DVD that are just lovely scenes that we worked very hard on that just couldn’t be in the final film. A lot of them are just funny though but editing is in many ways just reducing and reducing a big pile of film stock until you’ve got your film left.
You’ve spoken about yourself and your mum but was it difficult for you to convince the rest of your family to be involved at all?
Well you’ll notice when you watch the film that my brother Mark is something of a reluctant participant but he was living with my parents and he absolutely accepted that we were making a film with my mum. Nobody objected to being filmed in my family because they could see how it was affecting mum and they believed, I think, that it was going to be an interesting project. They weren’t exactly jumping to be in the film but they just thought ‘this is what Karen does’.
Although it is quite a personal film and story, did you feel that from that the themes that came out were quite universal?
I’ve been in thirty screenings of the film now all over the world and the next festivals I’m going to with it are in Russia and China. I think the fact that the film has travelled so widely shows that the themes are very universal . Tricky families exist in all cultures and how we relate to older people is a big subject everywhere. I think that’s what connects people to it. So many people have contacted me personally after screenings but also come up to me after screenings and said in public things that are incredible. This has really shown me that, while I felt very alone and lonely after the trauma of my mother’s stroke, the volume of people who going through this kind of trauma is extraordinary. If you are going through that kind of trauma it can give you incredible hope I think.
Although the story itself is quite strange and quite unique, a lot of what does happen within it are something that people can perhaps relate to.
When I was making the film I was very conscious of the fact that there were some very unique parts to our family story, elements that you wouldn’t even write as a fiction writer. But I felt very confident and secure that the baseline themes of the film were the universal ones about family bonds and how hard it is to stay together as a family in a way, but how worth it is as well. It was the dramatic arc of my parents marriage that pulls through those themes really.
You must be delighted with the response to the film, not only from people in screenings as you’ve mentioned but also critically?
I really couldn’t wish for more. I had very little support when I was making the film. I had some brilliant footage from very early on and I would write out funding applications and I had almost nothing come back from any of that. For a long time I worked very hard with my editor, plugging away for years. I would often, in my very darkest moments, really doubt what I was doing and question why I was spending all this time and energy on something that was going to sit on a hard drive. I was maybe going through some therapy and I would doubt the power of what I was doing. When I first heard the film had got into HotDocs I wept because I realised I had kept within myself a terror that I was doing something that wasn’t going to be worthwhile. That was the first time I though ‘Thank God’ and then I sat in a room with strangers at a festival in Canada and I heard everybody laugh and cry and then I got the prize. I thought ‘Wow, this is happening!’ especially after all that work and doubt
Especially having put so much into it both personally and professionally…
Absolutely, and it was kind of risky in that way. I’d put so much into the film that it was getting quite dangerous if it had gone wrong so to have that critical and popular response was off the scale in terms of what I could have dreamt for.
It didn’t just take a long time to make but to distribute as well then?
Yeah and I’m still involved in that and doing a lot of outreach work with the film. I’ve taken it to Stroke support groups and NHS professionals who use the film as a sort of tool for them to help talk about the issues. Not just Strokes but end of life care as well. While that’s not the glamorous side of things, I’m really interested in doing that kind of work with the film which is all on-going.
Is that something you ever envisaged would happen with it?
Well I’d hoped that it would as when I got the film through the post-production process I started to get a lot of feedback from the Stroke community. I therefore knew it had the scope to do that but until the film is out there you don’t know for sure how people are going to react to it. It’s also not a film that I would say is ‘about Stroke’ as while Stroke is a huge part of it, it’s a not about what happens with a stroke, that’s just part of a much bigger picture.
And as you said, it wasn’t the film you set out to make as your mum’s stroke affected the narrative somewhat…
Indeed and my own knowledge and awareness of Stroke was somewhat non-existent and each stroke is unique, which is one of the problems when it comes to educating people about it.
What are you going to be working on next?
That’s the million dollar question! Part of the problem is that I want to feel as strongly about the next film as I did about this one and that is a very, very tall order. I will make another film of course but I am taking my time in deciding what that one could be. And to be brutally honest, I’d really like some support for the next one! I’d love it if somebody would come to me and say ‘Here is a little bit of money, why don’t you make a film?’ as the last one was just a killer. It’s quite ironic in a sense as it’s by miles my most successful film but it was at all stages the hardest to get off the ground.
But hopefully it will open up some further avenues for you…
Indeed and that’s just the next part in the journey of the film. It’s got such legs on it that it will just keep growing I think.
THE CLOSER WE GET IS OUT NOW