The Closer We Get director Karen Guthrie speaks to our reporter Clare Blackburne about dealing with an unexpected crisis, the importance of facing up to the past and the emotions involved in exploring her family's most intimate secrets.
'I didn’t know you could grow old overnight. And I never expected my mother to need mothering.’
Now, more than ever, it feels urgent that we do not allow the real experiences around end of life care to be sidelined. Disability, old age and grief so often happen ‘off stage’, in some shadowy space we would prefer not to look into, as though by keeping it out of sight we might somehow be able to deny it altogether.
Karen Guthrie’s documentary The Closer We Get is an intimate portrayal of the final years of her mother’s life in the aftermath of a debilitating stroke. With understated honesty, Guthrie shines light into the shadows, inviting us to explore not only her family's personal secrets and shifting dynamics, but also our own emotional reactions to the universal themes of ageing, relationship and loss. What emerges is ultimately a powerful testimony to the value of a life and to the ability of narrative and film to make sense out of upheaval.
Guthrie’s mother, Ann, sadly died while she was working on the edit. But, throughout the film, we see – in photos from her youth, in footage from before her stroke and after – a woman characterised by her bright humour and resilience in spite of everything. ‘People presumed that I wouldn’t want to deal with the editing any more’, Guthrie observes, ‘but it was quite the opposite. There was a wind in my sails. It felt as though I was spending time with the very best of my mother. And then there was this added motivation: to finish the film and to tell the story.’
Aided by her long-term collaborative partner, Nina Pope, and editor, Alice Powell, Guthrie worked to condense and craft 88 days of footage into 87 poignant minutes. The finished work navigates the complex web of her family’s history, in particular, the role of her father, Ian, but above all serves as an enduring memorial to her mother and to the force of her love. In CCA’s bustling Saramago Café, Guthrie describes the intensity of this editing process, framed as it was by grief, and how her collaborators’ blend of skill, sensitivity and frankness helped her to find the shape of her own story amidst the unruliness of lived experience.
In contrast with the usual way a film is pitched to funders, with a clear sense of narrative arc and ending, this was a story that unfolded in time with the footage: ‘Most documentaries are written, and footage is then cut to a script. With this, though, I was moving material around right to the end. It was important not only that it was an emotional film, but also that people could enjoy the drama.’ It is in this marriage between naturalistic observation and artistic skill that the full force of the documentary is felt.
‘Disinhibited’ is a word Guthrie that uses several times in the course of our conversation, hinting at a creative freedom that arises when there’s nothing left to lose, or the catharsis that can sometimes be felt ‘when the china is already broken on the floor’. Filmed ‘instinctively’, at whatever hour of the day or night felt right, this is Guthrie’s first self-narrated film and therefore a venture into unknown territory. When describing how she wrote the voiceover, avoiding self-censorship wherever possible, she emphasises how painful it was. In part, that was due to the importance of each decision that had to be made and needing to ‘put things into a line’. ‘It’s my version of the last few years,’ she says. ‘It’s not everyone’s version, but it’s still true because it’s how I felt at the time.’
Such raw authenticity, then, is carefully framed and crafted by a documentarist's skill. The process of bringing together footage, voiceover and soundtrack (a beautiful score by Scottish indie icon Malcolm Middleton, composed shortly after he became a father for the first time), revealed to Guthrie how the her story’s full impact arises from the interplay of all three, and how, while life unfolds moment by moment, meaning and comprehension is so often retrospective.
In fact, it is this process of sense-making that Guthrie likens to the some of the strategies that underpin mental health, a theme which resonates perfectly with the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Guthrie says that, as a child growing up in Largs on the Firth of Clyde, she was a ‘girl with a camera, a girl with a sketchpad’, so that the decision to film this most private aspect of her life was not only natural, but also therapeutic: ‘It was as though my creative self was looking after my other selves…It’s what I’ve always done.’ The success of this endeavour, she stresses, could serve as a strong positive message to anyone who watches it: ‘to express what’s going on in your life, private or public’, is a means for coping with crisis and crafting an understanding out of the myriad events that make up our identities and experience.
Having The Closer We Get accepted by the International Film Festival in Chicago was clearly an important moment of affirmation, all the sweeter given the painful experience of having big-name funders reject the project at the outset. At the time, these knockbacks felt like ‘being punched in the stomach…as though they were saying, “your life isn’t interesting enough”’. The film’s success and the strong emotional reaction of audiences shows how far it is from being the ‘personal misery memoir’ that Guthrie had once feared it might be seen as. Instead, it represents a generous invitation to intimacy for anyone is lucky enough to see it: ‘It would have meant a lot to my mother, to know that her life is helping people. It’s an amazing legacy for a woman who saw herself as ordinary.’
Many people have told Guthrie that after watching The Closer We Get, they immediately wanted to see it again. Indeed, the first viewing is highly emotive, with sudden revelations and narrative shifts. On re-watching the film, I noticed how the nuances in the relationships came to the fore. Once secrets have been revealed, there is no way of unknowing them, and this new knowledge casts a different light on all that goes before. With hindsight, old family photographs and video footage take on new meanings and resonance, sending their delayed messages across the years. ‘The closer we get, the less we can hide’, Guthrie tells us in the film, and, once we’ve entered into this narrative, there is a shared vulnerability in exposure, facing up to all the unspoken hurts and awkward dynamics suddenly made visible on screen.
When it came to her father, it was important to Guthrie not to paint ‘a sweet portrait’ of him, but to show, particularly in his relationship with his youngest son, Campbell, how her own childhood experiences had been, growing up under his aura of strict values and high expectations. There’s also a sense that this laying out of secrets and private angers offers a certain relief and freedom to all involved. Indeed, Guthrie mentions how proud her father is of the film. He even fielded questions from the audience after its European premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, facing up to his daughter’s perspective on things and navigating the sudden publicity of things that had hitherto been hidden.
But most striking of all, perhaps, is the serenity of Ann, ‘like a little Buddha’, her good humour and compassion in sharp contrast to the physical ravages of the stroke. Guthrie identifies this letting go as being ‘the holy grail of mental health’, ‘being in the moment rather than looking to the past.’ Through her acceptance, Ann ‘teaches us about adversity’ and ‘a good way of death’, creating an opportunity to say goodbye while the person is still with us. Despite the exhaustion and uncertainty of the final stages, Guthrie emphasises how much fun they had together, an emotion that rarely features in our narratives of illness and age: ‘I approached each day with her as if it could be her last’.
The ‘silver lining’ to the crisis, then, was that its suddenness forced people to make contact with the present tense of this new reality, this seismic shift that profoundly ‘recalibrated the entire family’. ‘Otherwise, Guthrie, says, ‘We would have stayed mute. It forced us to face up to buried things.’ In the emotional scenes when her niece Zoe speaks to directly camera, we’re left with a feeling that the family narrative will continue to expand: with the younger generation, ‘the status quo starts to dilute’.
Casting a lens onto the past, then, becomes a way of ushering in a new way forwards, where speech takes over from silence. In the film’s final moments, the camera lingers on one of Guthrie’s other young nieces sitting in her mother’s empty wheelchair, before cutting to the poignant dedication page – In memory of Ann Guthrie (1938-2013) – showing us, reminding us, how much a life exceeds the span of its years.
Written by Clare Blackburne
Karen Guthrie participated in a Q&A dicussion following the screening of The Closer We Get at CCA in Glasgow on Mon 19 Oct. Malcolm Middleton, who composed the film's score, rounded off the evening with a short live set.
Check out the rest of our Film Programme, including our ninth International Film Awards ceremony on Thu 29 Oct.