The gentle art of documentary portraiture can look as quaint as watercolor these days. But when painting the brutal realities surrounding a 22-year-old with Mowat-Wilson syndrome — a man whose every communication requires assistance from friends and who faces an episode of oncoming blindness at the same time he attempts to transition from his mother’s house to the home of paid caregivers — delicate strokes are required. In his first documentary feature outing, director Robert Arnold intelligently homes in on the most intimate moments of this story of a very differently abled teenager moving into adulthood, and pieces together an audio-visual experience that highlights the prickly art of creating compassionate relationships. We spoke with Arnold about his own intersections with the story, which won the Golden Gate Awards’ Best Bay Area Documentary prize at San Francisco International’s 50th last spring. “The Key of G“ is being broadcast on KQED, Channel 9, in the Bay Area this week, beginning Sunday, Oct. 21st, at 6 p.m., as part of the “Truly CA” series.
SF360: How did you get involved with this particular story?
Robert Arnold: Two of the caregivers — Colter and Donal — were people that I knew from the Art Institute. I would run into them walking around town with G, and at first I really had no idea how to relate to him. He didn’t make eye contact, he drooled and didn’t speak. I couldn’t figure out how much of a consciousness was in there if he could even understand me when I talked to him. Then I saw him use his ‘communication book’ for the first time and I was stunned. There was a person in there, a full person with ideas and desires and a strong will. I still didn’t quite know how to deal with him, but I was fascinated, and when my close friend Amanda also began working with him, he became a regular fixture in my circle of friends. Originally I think I started shooting to find out as much as I could about what his world was like, but I was also drawn in by the effect he had on the people who worked with him — how he had become a kind of glue between them and started to affect their art and their lives.
SF360: The roommate-caregivers are such fascinating people themselves. Can you talk a little about their trajectories into and out of this particular kind of work?
Arnold: Colter was the first. He was fascinated with blindness, and got a job working part-time as a driver for the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired while at the SF Art Institute. He got Donal and Amanda (and me) volunteering from time to time helping out during the arts/crafts workshops there at the Lighthouse, which were pretty fun. The Lighthouse runs a camp called Enchanted Hills, and that’s where Colter met Gannet and G’s mom Amy, who were there together for a ‘family camp.’ Colter was very curious about G and liked his mom a lot, and ended up spending a lot of time with them. As camp was ending, Amy asked Colter if he’d like a part-time job working with G back in SF, and he said yes.
Colter and Donal were a couple at this point, but broke up soon after. They maintained a close friendship, though, and Donal saw Gannet frequently. After a short while Donal decided he’d like to work with G too, and Amy hired him. Donal had also been at the Art Institute, and is a writer and photographer. Donal had grown up in a family where there were always kids around that needed to be taken care of, and caregiving came very naturally to him once he was around Gannet.
Not long after Donal started working with G, Amanda Eicher — another artist who was friends with Colter and Donal and very close friends with me (she is currently my roommate and co-parent of my dog) — met G and also ended up asking Amy if she could work with him. It was soon after this that I started filming.
Amanda was the first to leave, after about a year and a half. It had always been problematic for Amanda to make ends meet, and support her art projects, on the $11/hr. that the ARC paid caregivers (for an explanation of the funding of G’s program see lateralfilms.com), and it was difficult arranging her other, more lucrative work (color-consulting and painting houses) around the piecemeal caregiving schedule. She continued to fill in occasional shifts after she quit, and still visits G from time to time.
Donal ran G’s household and took care of G through Spring of this year, when his boyfriend Mike bought a house in Portland, and he moved up there. This was the toughest transition for G. Donal still calls G at least once a week, and the people who work with G now often call Donal for advice. Donal and his boyfriend are now making a documentary of their own, about Donal’s family in rural NY (which was the subject of much of Donal’s writing and photo work). It’s called ‘October Country’ and it looks like it’s going to be great.
Colter was the last of the main people in the film to leave. His art career took off: Jack Hanley has been selling his work through the gallery and at art fairs faster than Colter can make it, so Colter gradually tapered down days with G and eventually stopped working with him on a regular basis. He is still in town (most of the time) and visits G a lot.
SF360: The cinematography is so terrific. But I imagine you had hours and hours of footage to sort through…. Do you mind if I ask, just how many hours?
Arnold: Thank you! By the end, over 150. I shot it over about 3 1/2 years. The footage is pretty repetitive, because G’s life is pretty repetitive, and a lot of it is sort of waiting for some unexpected special moment to occur. (If I’d have had a camera like the HVX with a 30-second pre-roll, I would have shot a LOT less.) Ironically, a lot of my favorite shots are from my very first day of shooting. (Side note — part of my continual kvetching about the obsession with narrative in documentary: I found that my worst shooting was when something ‘important’ was going on and I was worried about missing it. Most of my favorite stuff, like the really tight shots of Amanda’s mouth making sounds in G’s ear in the park, I shot at times when there seemed to be little point in shooting, and I was thus more willing to take risks.)
SF360: The editing was also really wonderful — for instance, the scene that goes from the car video game right to traffic right to (if I remember correctly) a foot on a stair? Can you talk about the process of creating this as a whole? What was the most difficult part?
Arnold: For me personally, the detailed, fine cutting is always a pleasure, and the bigger structural things a total headache. I’m also someone who really doesn’t care a whole lot about really structured stories. I tend to experience movies (that I like) as a series of epiphanies and I love crazy meandering messy movies (like certain docs from the ’70s, or Cassavetes, or Mulholland Drive, or this awesome film by Olivier Assayas — ‘Cold Water’ — that I saw at the PFA today.) Since I was making this for public TV in 2007 (I had ITVS funding and was contracted to make a 1-hour for broadcast), I knew I needed an editor who was strong on story but aesthetically compatible. Malcolm turned out to be perfect. He had wrangled ‘Following Sean,’ which is a really complicated multi-thread film, into a beautiful coherent whole, and he was able to really keep the whole structure of my film in focus while I thought more about ‘moments.’ We really team-edited the film. We had two editing stations and had two copies of all of the media, so we could work independently and exchange sequences via a server we had set up. Usually we’d sit together and watch sequences or cuts that we’d done, decide what need to be worked on, and then split up the work, each of us taking certain scenes. Often we would pass scenes back and forth: I’d get stuck and hand something off to him, or he’d cut something and not be happy with it, but it’d spark an idea in me and I’d take over. There are certain scenes that I can definitely identify as mine or his, others that are truly collaborations. The hardest parts? Exposition, especially in a documentary that doesn’t have extensive interviews or a lot of voiceover, is hard. There were early cuts in which the first 10 minutes felt like information was being crammed down your throat, others that left the viewer too lost. Initially Amanda’s character was really difficult, because she sort of drops out of the story without much fanfare. It was hard work to save her, but I am so glad we did.
SF360: The film strikes a really wonderful tone with its pacing, music, and scene choices. Can you offer a sense of what you were going for? Other films that may have influenced your approach?
Arnold: The first film that springs to mind is ‘To Be and To Have,’ by Nicolas Philibert. I don’t think my movie is really very much like his, but it is certainly a movie I was thinking about a lot at the time. It has this great sense of patience to it, and a willingness to let things just unfold in front of the camera, but it also is really formally beautiful. I also like how you go for maybe an hour in his film with no voiceover or interviews, just feeling like you are in that environment, and then the main subject just plunks down on a bench (as I remember it) and starts to talk to the camera.
I wanted something of the feeling of ‘To Be and To Have,’ but I was also up to something else. When I started out making the film I was really motivated by the question: ‘What is it like to BE Gannet? How does he experience the world?’ I didn’t want to be presumptuous and try to ‘simulate’ his view of the world (as if I really knew it…), but I did want to give the viewer both a heightened experience of sound — because G is so tuned into that — and a slightly dislocated feeling.
SF360: Is this your first major feature? What have you been doing until now?
Arnold: I had made a few short experimental things before, but never anything this involved. I studied film in the ’90s, and worked on a lot of other people’s films, but the process was so expensive and cumbersome that I didn’t really make much of my own work, and I just couldn’t stand the look of video as it was then. I switched over to still photography and finished a degree at the SF Art Institute and made that kind of work for a while, until a friend of mine asked me to shoot his documentary. I had never shot video or documentary before, but he insisted. I got a DVX100, and once I saw the images that camera could produce, I no longer missed film very much.
SF360: What funding sources did you look for besides ITVS?
Arnold: We got a Pacific Pioneer grant first, and I have to say that they are great. We’d applied for a lot of things before that, and it seemed like everybody was so focused on the nominal content and nobody really cared about the actual filmmaking. We got shortlisted for Pacific Pioneer, and they have you come in and show your sample reel to the panel in person, and they ask you questions. It was the first time I felt like any funder was actually looking at what I was doing and digging in and getting it. It was a wonderful experience, and they gave me their maximum grant ($10,000), which was a huge shot in the arm after almost two years of getting turned down for everything. Soon after that we got a Fleishhacker grant, and then signed the contract with ITVS a while later. (We had also tried getting money specifically from organizations who deal with disability issues, but those organizations really don’t have much in the way of resources.)
SF360: You won a Golden Gate Award at the SF International’s 50th. Was that unexpected? Has the film played other festivals? Where’s it headed after TV? Is it difficult to find theatrical distribution for a one-hour film in a 90-minute world?
Arnold: The Golden Gate Award was totally unexpected. I almost didn’t go to the ceremony (Malcolm talked me into it), and everyone who won something seemed so prepared I figured that they had tipped off the winners in advance! Part of the reason I was so shocked by the win was because of our apparent festival curse. We applied to maybe 30 or 35 festivals, and got into only SFIFF and Port Townsend (who invited us after seeing the film at the SFIFF). A few sent us notes saying that they really loved the film, but couldn’t ‘find a place’ for it, but most just sent the standard we-got-2000-entries-this-year rejection letter. I kind of understand that it is a hard movie to market to audiences, and at one hour needs to have an appropriate film to be paired with. Still, I feel a little bruised about the whole festival experience (apart from SFIFF.)
I don’t think it’s a film that has a prayer of getting regular theatrical distribution (even if it were 90 minutes), but we hope to get at least a few theatrical screenings here in SF and maybe a few other cities.
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