The tools of digital filmmaking are opening film to more expressive power including in documentaries like I Am Another You, the new film by Nanfu Wang.
The Digital World
The word “documentary” comes with a sense of authority, as if only films in this genre get to say how the world works. That idea makes sense, except that the authority of documentaries completely falls apart around the blurry cases of propaganda, the spectrum of bias to ideology, and the duplicity that can go on behind the scenes of these films. You don’t have to look as far as Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia, to get mired in the unique difficulties of documentary filmmaking. The act of observing is contentious in itself.
The warped spaces of reality is, in many respects, the subject of I Am Another You, a 2017 documentary by Nanfu Wang. I Am Another You was well received on its initial release at SXSW and played this week October 6-12, 2017) at Facets’ Cinémathèque, its Chicago premiere.
As a film I Am Another You has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than it does with documentaries as a whole. Both films have the same three act structure, but they have almost inverse approaches to their themes. and while 2001 explores the growth of mankind as something becoming transcendent and inhuman. On the other hand, Nanfu Wang looks at an individual’s subjective experience as transcendent. In this case that individual is Dylan, a young and charismatic drifter who left his middle class upbringing in Utah for a life of wandering from San Diego to St. Petersburg.
But the singular difficulty of documentary’s objectivity is called into question with the first shot of film. As Nanfu Wang narrates her first trip outside of China, she calls attention to the distorting act of recording. She travels by train, by airplane, by bus all recorded on a DSLR camera notably with a rolling shutter. The rolling shutter literally warps fast moving objects by capturing different parts of one frame at different times. The result is less of a motion blur and more of a motion skew as buildings and trees wiz by.
From the first moment on, Nanfu Wang is showing her audience that reality is relative. It’s relative to the camera as much as it is to individuals. The whole question of what is accurately represents reality in films is at the forefront of film theory as more digital photography and digital projections pervade cinemas. Since at least 2004 and Collateral, where cinematographer Paul Cameron was open about the difficulties of shooting digital, the look of digital photography has been a point of contention for filmmakers.
I Am Another You is unabashedly digital. In a profound way it’s the warped reality of the digital world that is documented here. The film is distanced from reality by drawing so much attention to its digital production, the filmmaker, and her camera. Through numerous reflections and shadows showing Nanfu Wang and her equipment, the production of this documentary itself is transparent. But I Am Another You breaks the typical, apparent neutrality of documentaries in other ways too.
A number of critical moments which bear reflection take place under artificial lighting. There are cop lights through the bushes. There are string lights in the outdoor seating at a restaurant. Occasionally there are high contrast florescent lights on a bus. There are LED billboards in New York. Early on Nanfu Wang wanders the streets with Dylan under sodium lighting. Years later she captures Dylan sleeping in a parking lot where LED lighting gives a completely different look to the color and shadows. Each moment is worthy of attention. None of these moments have the accepted naturalistic look of film nor the smooth lighting of a studio interview. Instead, such moments are heightened in emotion.
The changing look of Los Angeles street lighting has had an effect on the look of mainstream films. Simultaneously there’s been a fragmentation of the industry that’s allowed locations in Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida in particular to develop a distinctive look that’s rich in emotion. Amongst this atomization, there’s been a resurgence of expressionistic techniques in cinematography. Since 2012, when Spring Breakers illuminated neon bikinis under stark lighting on digital cameras, there’s been a growing number of films which use colorful extremes to effectively saturate emotional moments on the screen.
In 2016, Moonlight cemented the effectiveness of this vivid cinematography. Moonlight creates numerous expressionistic color spaces for its moving story about identity and emotional turmoil. In a few short years this formal convention has grown from the party scenes in Spring Breakers or Magic Mike (2012) and expanded a cinematic vocabulary for profound emotions.
I Am Another You slides into discussions of mental health and emotional stability at numerous points as Nanfu Wang reflects more and more on her time under these unnatural lighting arrangements. In this way I Am Another You, a documentary, is making use of these recently cultivated, highly expressive tools. If there is authority in documentaries, then I Am Another You is making the case that these emotional spaces are actual places that exist. Interviews make the argument explicit. But I Am Another You, like the fictional films which share its unique and intentionally unnatural lighting, does have a strong, central location to the events—Florida. Using these expressive lights on distinctly digital formats to capture profound emotional places amidst a fragmenting film industry seems to make up a Florida aesthetic in film.
A Sudden Realization
While leaving the Cinémathèque this time, it didn’t seem likely that the picture of the world shown here could be reality. I Am Another You makes a profound point in its final act about how people dealing with schizophrenia experience reality. It goes so far as to recreate that reality on screen. Nevertheless, as open ended as Nanfu Wang wants to leave her complicated subject, because it is a series of well documented images there’s a sense that the ground beneath your feet is somehow solid.
In point of fact this documentary calls attention to what warps reality. A digital camera can warp reality with a rolling shutter. Colorful lights can warp reality by changing the color of a person’s skin or the room they’re standing in. But what’s shown is merely what some part of Florida looked like for a few weeks when Nanfu Wang was shooting her illuminating new documentary.
But then, stepping on to the street, and making my way home skewed even that perception. Looking around the modern world, a world filled with digital cameras and lit with LEDs, although not entirely, there’s a sense of second guessing your own eyes that lasts outside the theater. Nanfu Wang successfully points to the very areas of a much wider urban American experience. One that can be felt leaving the theater. As a Chinese filmmaker working in America, Nanfu Wang is explicit about how freedom is something tangible she is looking for in action as she makes this documentary. Ultimately that concept, freedom, which American audiences and some figures in this film take for granted, proves more ephemeral than the intense emotions and hallucinations that are the true subject of I Am Another You.