The Closer We Get, 2015.
Directed by Karen Guthrie.
Starring Karen Guthrie, Ann Guthrie and Ian Guthrie.
Karen Guthrie plans to film a documentary about the tumultuous history of her family, but tragedy strikes when her mother suffers from a debilitating seizure early on in production.
Every family has skeletons, but while most of us would like to keep those in the closet, Karen Guthrie has chosen to air her family’s dirty laundry in the award-winning documentary The Closer We Get, an unflinchingly honest depiction of the devastation that secrets can leave in their wake.
From the outset, it becomes immediately clear that Guthrie’s family dynamic isn’t normal. Her mother Anna recently suffered from a stroke, prompting her divorced husband Ian to return home and become her primary caregiver, sharing duties with their four children. On paper, The Closer We Get sounds like a redemptive tale of enduring love, but Guthrie’s intent behind filming this documentary is far more complicated than that.
Through photos, interviews, TV clips and Guthrie’s own voice-over, secrets that tore the family apart gradually come to the fore, unraveling like a slow burning whodunnit mystery. The twists involved are reminiscent of documentaries such as The Imposter or Capturing The Friedmans, except The Closer We Get is low-key in its approach, dealing with the struggles of the Guthrie clan on a more human, relatable level.
When we discover that Ian had another family hidden away while working in Africa, we’re left reeling by the consequences of this revelation before we then begin to watch home videos of Ian’s secret son Campbell visiting the Guthries in Scotland. It would be easy to paint Ian as the villain of the piece, but Guthrie never caricatures her family, honestly portraying each of her relatives and even herself with warts and all.
Ian’s emotional disconnection to the pain he’s created is infuriating to watch at times, but moments later, he’ll then make an offhand joke or a loving gesture that reminds us that the people we’re watching here are all too real. Guthrie reinforces this through the use of a largely static camera and extreme close-ups that makes it feel like we’re sitting right there in the living room beside them, laughing at their banter or sharing their tears.
Guthrie’s voice-over lays all of her emotions bare, as if we’re listening to someone read out their private diary, but the majority of conversations filmed are far more mundane, dealing with the minutiae of the family’s daily lives in the wake of Anna’s stroke. The contrast this creates will be familiar to anyone who has ever wanted to ask a loved one the hard questions that no one wants to answer. It’s easier to ignore the elephant in the room, even if everyone knows about it and the pain still lingers.
However, with gentle probing over a period of months, Guthrie successfully captures moments of brutal honesty, some of which can be almost too much to bear for everyone involved. One particular scene where Anna explains how she felt upon discovering her husband’s secret life is gut-wrenching to watch. All you want to do is call Ian out for the horrendous pain he’s inflicted on those closest to him, but as Guthrie herself points out, it’s a very different situation if you’re the outsider looking in.
There is some morbid satisfaction to be had in snooping around the dirty laundry of others, but the true appeal of The Closer We Get lies in the lessons we learn from these genuine insights into the human condition. Towards the end of the film, a normal conversation between Anna and her daughter Karen soon becomes a heart-wrenching revelation of what it’s like to suffer from a debilitating stroke. The entire exchange is so much more powerful than a direct interview would have been precisely because nothing is forced about it. We know for certain that every tear is real, even though the family are aware that they’re being filmed throughout.
Originally, Karen and her mother planned to make The Closer We Get together as a way to find answers and gain catharsis, but after suffering from her stroke early on in the process, Anna became a more important focal point than Ian, changing the entire nature of the film. The way Guthrie contrasts her mothers interviews from before and after the stroke is a masterstroke in powerful filmmaking, raising awareness of the condition without once preaching to the audience.
Documentaries hold a mirror to our own lives, whether they tackle large scale issues like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or personal stories such as Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. In The Closer We Get, artist Karen Guthrie has crafted an extremely intimate portrayal of her family that delves deep into her own personal issues while exploring a huge range of universal themes, including deception, family relations, unconditional love and the nature of documentary filmmaking itself.
The Closer We Get premiered at the Canadian documentary film festival ‘Hot Docs’ earlier this year and took home the prize for Best International Documentary. If there is any justice, that won’t be the only award Guthrie wins, not by a long stretch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★