Focusing on the family

Karen Guthrie talks about documenting her life in The Closer We Get.

by Amber Wilkinson

"My mum was my 'co-pilot' in a many ways and part of the strength of the film comes from that sense of two women in cahoots."
Karen Guthrie's The Closer We Get sees her turn the camera on her own family to record the months after her mum Ann had a stroke. As the family's world revolves around caring for her mum, Guthrie begins to consider the past that saw her dad move out their home and the present which has brought him back again - it's a journey that takes her a long way from her family home in Largs. The film won the Best International Documentary award at Canada's Hot Docs Film Festival and had its European premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 18, 2015.

We caught up with the filmmaker at the festival to talk about her film.

Amber Wilkinson: It seems you had decided to start shooting film of your family before your mum had her stroke - what prompted you to turn the camera on yourself and how hard was it to persuade your family to take part? Did you ever regret that?

Karen Guthrie: I always knew my family story was amazing and that it would make a brilliant film - though I wasn't sure I could manage to make that film. The film we planned at the start was to be a two-woman road movie - a light-hearted detective story looking at my dad's past. What prompted that I don't know really - maybe just my growing up and having enough distance from the past to see it as objectively as a film needs. And also genuinely wanting to know about him from others view.

When the stroke happened and we re approached the film, I believe my mum knew that her time left was short and that she wanted (at last) to be listened to. A camera is so powerful - and I guess I was made brave by having it with me and it enabled me to talk about things that were off limits usually - with all my family.

Karen Guthrie:
Karen Guthrie: "Watching yourself (and usually looking very tired!) on screen is never easy but you get over it and it's vital you reveal yourself to an audience or they won't trust your story."
All my family trusted me enormously and I'm grateful for that. I suspect my dad agreed to it because he too knew he was getting on and felt it was the time to set the record straight, and finish some unfinished business. And because he liked the attention!

AW:Did the fact that your mum was debilitated make it harder for you to shoot your footage?

KG: Sometimes if she was off-colour we couldn't film for many weeks and because I never knew how long we could continue, it was very hard to plan the project out. But that urgency certainly focused my mind and I filmed every time like it could be the true last. My carer duties often meant I was exhausted when filming - though this was challenging in some ways I'm sure that it 'disinhibited' me in a good way - it Made me less finicky, more creative, looser.

AW: There is quite a lot of film of the local environment in your - both in Largs and elsewhere, how important was it for you to root your documentary this way?

KG: I realise now that as a child my creativity grew out of being in that specific place and community and so to return there and make this film there reconnected me to that early freedom in a very fruitful way. I felt genuinely compelled to keep working on the film however hard it got and I think some of that motivation came from reconnecting with that childhood creativity. Over time, I realised that though I'd left a long time ago I would always be part of that place and so my cinematography tried to capture that deep sense of identity you have as a bored kid in a seaside town - you know every inch of the prom, every face on the street.

AW: Did you expect that your film would take you so far from home from the outset? Did you find you learn things about yourself from making it/watching yourself afterwards?

Karen Guthrie:
Karen Guthrie: "My cinematography tried to capture that deep sense of identity you have as a bored kid in a seaside town - you know every inch of the prom, every face on the street."
KG: No I was as shocked as I hope viewers will be at the turn of events and, of course, I had to keep filming! I was living the film's story not just shooting it and leaving, unlike with most docs. So it never 'turned off' and it was really hard to even know how and when to start and end the story. That was hard but autobiographical filmmaking is all about trying to record what is real (and sometimes raw) as honestly as you can and then taking that into the edit with trusted collaborators who help you decide what to leave out. It's all about what you leave out.

Watching yourself (and usually looking very tired!) on screen is never easy but you get over it and it's vital you reveal yourself to an audience or they won't trust your story. I learnt from the experience rather than of filming it - the joy of being a carer, that love is more important as a lived thing than words, that you can't escape your past, that marriage is complicated - I could go on!

AW:What do your family - particulary your dad and your youngest brother - think of the finished product, you don't try to romanticise them at all. Did you ever worry that as a documentarian who had a lot of 'skin in the game' that you were favouring one perspective over the other?

KG:It's a self-portrait and my family see that, my narration doesn't hide that the perspective is mine. My mum was my 'co-pilot' in a many ways and part of the strength of the film comes from that sense of two women in cahoots. My dad has seen it but it would be hard to say what he really thinks of it yet. But I think he sees it as a fair portrait of him, and an affectionate one. My siblings think it's great and, of course, love it as a memorial to their mum.

The Closer We Get poster
The Closer We Get poster
AW: Has it led to more of the openness in your family that you seem to long for within in the film?

KG:Yes I think so. And, of course, sadly, bereavement is very bonding.

AW: Now you've told your story, whose story is next?

KG: I'm not sure. I fantasise of being asked to make the ultimate documentary about Prince, though.

For more information about the film visit thecloserweget.com

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