Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you the world premiere of Billy Feldman and Jessica Petruccelli’s Not Bad at All.
Not Bad at All is a rare film. Filmmakers Billy Feldman and Jessica Petruccelli explore a very intimate subject with a refreshing balance of narrative depth and restraint. We are very excited to present the film’s official world premiere as part of the Resident Video series.
The film documents Jessica’s trips between two different contexts: her life in New York city, where she works as a set decorator, and her time spent at her childhood home in Boston, where she takes care of her father, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She has been making this commute for 6 years, totaling 600 trips, or – put another way – Jessica has spent 4 months riding the bus back and forth.
Challenging standard approaches to documentary filmmaking, Not Bad at All focuses on Jessica’s relationship with her 87-year-old father Aloysius in a way most viewers would categorize as experimental narrative fiction. This formal tension helps Billy and Jessica (as filmmakers/subjects) explore the complexities of family, memory, and those strange in-between spaces that we all navigate.
In the interview below, we talked to Billy and Jessica about their experience making the film.
Not Bad at All is a very intimate film. We are invited into private spaces to witness highly personal moments. What compounds this is the slippery genre positioning – Jessica, you are co-creator and subject. The film focuses on your relationship with your father, Al, and his deteriorating health. Even so, this is not a traditional documentary, and at times it feels like a narrative fiction film. Is it even worth trying to make these genre distinctions, trying to parse out and label what is documentary, autobiography, or fiction?
JESSICA: The mix is unavoidable, for narrative and emotional reasons it needs to be shaped, but it’s the same in all documentaries. In many ways, Not Bad At All is less fiction than your traditional documentary, but the visual language is more similar to fiction film.
BILLY: There is a stubborn distinction between documentary and fiction. Perhaps it originates from the desire for movies to be real. For many, traditional documentary fulfills that desire for realness. As long as a particular vocabulary is used — talking head interviews, slow zooms into photographs, a narrative arc, etc. — the film’s validity remains unquestioned. If a documentary uses less encountered techniques, its validity instantly goes on trial. The false binary of these genres is not only about realness but also familiarity.
Throughout the film, split screen is often used to suggest parallel action or offer multiple points of perspective on a single event. While installation film/video and some features like Run Lola Run, The Rules of Attraction, and Conversations with Other Women use this device to similar effect, it is still somewhat experimental. What possibilities did this technique open for your film?
JESSICA: It started with a conversation about the balance of my existence in these two spaces, these two cities, and how the bus was such an important element to ease me from one place into the other. At one point Billy suggested we use a split screen to capture how much time I spent on the bus.
BILLY: From there, the conversation lead to thinking about the doubling, mirroring, and parallels in Jessica’s story; concepts that we couldn’t separate from things like time, memory, and history. The split screen provided us with a way to explore these ideas.
JESSICA: It ends up acting as a visual voice over in some spots, like when I’m going through the small boxes full of keepsakes, for example.
BILLY: The split screen also makes the cut visible, compressing and or expanding time through comparison.
At some points during the long takes that make up most of the film, the camera seems to disappear. It’s almost as though the viewer becomes embedded within the scenes. A large part of this embeddedness comes from the subjects’ unselfconscious actions – they act “naturally,” as though they aren’t being filmed – something that is hard to pull off in fiction and nonfiction narratives alike. Was this invisible camera or unselfconsciousness hard to produce? Was it even intentional?
JESSICA: The tricky thing about making this film was to be in front of the camera; I’m not used to it. No one in our film really is, except perhaps my Dad, though not at this stage in his life. So we shot the daily activities I always did to care for my father. The actions in these scenes were necessary parts of daily life, each with a beginning, middle, and end; it was more about doing than performing. The first day we shot, it was nerve-racking having a film crew, small as it was, and as good of friends as they are, being right there watching me help care for my dad in this way.
I was really opening up this side of my life that I had always gone at alone. After watching the initial footage, I was surprised by how much talking I was doing because I was nervous. As I got used to our process, I was able to be in front of the camera with more ease.
BILLY: In every documentary I can think of where the makers are in front of the camera, the story, to some extent, becomes about the makers creating the film. Our decision to be in front of the camera, but not explicitly as the filmmakers, relates to what you were describing as the viewer becoming embedded within the scenes. If we were in the film as the creators, the viewer’s experience would be, “those people I’m looking at experienced this,” instead of “I, the viewer, am experiencing this now.”
To answer your question about the difficulty of trying to achieve an invisible camera, yes, it is very hard to resist the desire to reframe. There was always a feeling that you are going to, or have missed a moment. To me the moments lost are as important as the moments captured; both are cumulative experiences that shape the piece. It was so difficult that I, and our cinematographer Fletcher Wolfe would occasionally leave the room when shooting. It was the only way to resist the urge to reframe the shot.
The interplay between media, time, and memory plays a huge role throughout Not Bad at All. The film’s contemporary narrative is often punctuated by scenes that offer insight into the past through archival footage, home videos, and even Flashdance. Could you talk about your reasons for including these elements in the narrative?
BILLY: The existing footage helps contextualize the present, but it also contributes to conceptualize the past. It was a way to convey a different kind of information.
JESSICA: It was important to show who my father was to people who didn’t know him, and to give a glimpse into my mom’s life. The Flashdance scene did this but is also part of that folklore your parents tell you. “You know there is a picture of your mom in Flashdance.” (Which happened to be true). Or, “your dad might be a baron somewhere in Italy.” And “your mom might have dated Dustin Hoffman.” Who knows if any of this is true, it is still a part of our experience.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.