By Christopher Campbell | Spout March 31, 2011 at 1:41AM
I can see where people might be frustrated with the direct cinema approach. Re-watching Robert Greene's "Kati with an I" this week reminded me that it took a long time on my first viewing (at last fall's DOC NYC fest) to completely gather the story. Lacking any direct exposition save for some dated titles telling us how long until the eponymous character's high school graduation, it's easy to miss a basic "plot" element regarding Kati's current living situation and a potential problem looming post-ceremony. I'll spell it out for you here: the teen girls' parents have moved to North Carolina a few months before school's end, so she has stayed behind with a friend in order to finish up properly without a last minute change. But once the diploma is in hand, she'll be dragged out of her Alabama hometown, and the plan is that she'll be joined by her 21-year-old boyfriend, James.
The documentary's devotion to the verite aesthetic and principles means we're also not made privy to the roles of every person on screen, including Greene himself, who appears anonymously at one point driving Kati around (I only know this now, because I've seen what he looks like). The truth is, the girl is the filmmaker's half-sister, but another fact is that this isn't important to the narrative at hand. Just as the comparable "October Country" was co-directed by the main subjects' sibling and not directly acknowledged as such (you can surmise from the surname match there, at least), "Kati" is similarly not concerned with explaining inconsequential details. Its objective is to be objective, and given the subjectivity of the director's interest in his protagonist, it does a remarkable job.
Of course, I have encountered criticisms with the film that come from a reasonable ignorance regarding Greene's relationship to and intentions with his subjects. These complaints include the projected assumption that the film means to make fun of these Southern "hick" characters, especially James (who the director admitted could have been portrayed a whole lot worse, if I remember correctly). I've heard comments about how the camera's gaze is a bit sketchy at times, though that's not an impossible thing given that one of the cameramen (cinematographer Sean Price Williams) is not a blood relative of anyone in the film. It's still both immaterial and unlikely, but readings such as this have made me more contemplative of the doc's avoidance of a clarity that some viewers apparently require, as well as wonder if it's necessary for critics to read press notes and stay for Q&As in order to be fully knowledgeable on what they're critiquing.
Yet that knowledge goes against the whole point of objectivity, right? I don't want or need to be privy to anything going into works of this sort. The reason I love "Kati" and docs like it are that it unfolds an experience without me knowing what's going to happen, if anything. Just like life. Fortunately, there are some interesting developments, much of them subtle and slowly established, throughout. We learn rather nonchalantly that Kati is engaged to an older boy, we meet him not so immediately, and we experience the drama of 'will he or won't he' as it unfolds.
But even without narrative points, I would appreciate the way Greene brings us into this world, and more specifically into a room or a car, where we aren't always introduced to people or told what's going on. Not that there are many incidental scenes that are disposable, but a lot of moments do seem rather minor until considered as part of the bigger picture at the end (and with repeat viewings). And hey, if you're confused about whose baby that is or whose dog this is or who the guy on the couch is in the one scene, either you'll work it out or you probably don't need to sweat these small stuffs.
How you'll be able to focus on much more than Kati, anyway, I'm not sure. Greene, because of his relationship, has the utmost trust of his subject and gets awfully close and candid. And she's a terrific, unrestrained presence as a result. Even when the screen isn't filled with her face in close-up, she's a magnetic character with a genuinely lovable personality, including the times when she's whining. She's certainly a bit naive, occasionally reminiscent of a real-life Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek in "Badlands") without the violence, and obviously without the poetic narration (there is some lyrical voice-over, though, courtesy of overlap-cut home-movie-allowing flashbacks), but no more than your average youth.
I have to address the editing (by Greene), finally, because it seems to have a lot of fun with the jump-cut style. Certainly this type of editing is common in documentary, especially the direct cinema genre, but here it's more jarringly apparent, in a good way. And because it feels like a fiction film at times, I kept thinking of "Breaking the Waves." Maybe if Greene ever ventures into fiction (I doubt it), he'll come off as a cross between Von Trier and Malick ("Days of Heaven, Too": this time they are siblings, but not explicitly stated as such).
RIYL: "Badlands"; "October Country"
One of my favorite moments in "Kati" occurs during the graduation with a school official (the principal?) discussing the importance of this younger generation that's going out into the world. And sharing a concern for a new generation's obligations is central to another new documentary, Aaron Schock's "Circo." I haven't seen it since it played Silverdocs last June, but some things have stuck with me, like how the young kids in the film's family circus (or, to distinguish it from the comic strip, the circus family) are not only burdened by being born into such a hard-working clan but turn that burden into astounding talent. The grass is greener, and what not, but it looks as much fun as difficult to be a part of the traveling Ponces.
For some reason I've never been interested in the real circus when it comes to town, but I love watching the circus life on screen, whether it be in a fiction by Fellini or Chaplin (or even "Big Top Pee-Wee") or in a documentary. I'm sure the recent PBS "Circus" series has stolen some of this film's thunder, but there's a lot about "Circo" that I prefer, namely its humbler, penurious nature. It's more like what we imagine the grassroots circuses of old to be like, and the dirty, second-hand-looking costumes give it a more interesting character. Would I want to go see their show if they rolled into my neighborhood? I might not, and the strange thing is I'm sure I enjoyed the film for the family and their performance than for the way the film was made. Either way, if you're fascinated by the subject matter, it's definitely worth checking out.
RIYL: PBS' "Circus"; "La Strada"
"Kati with an I" starts next Friday at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, NYC.
"Circo" also opens Friday at NYC's IFC Center.