Olmo and the Seagull’ is a poetic and existential dive into an actress’s mind during the nine months of her pregnancy as she must confront her most fiery inner demons while trying to rewrite a new philosophy of life, identity and love. Underlying this hybrid film is mounting tension over what is real and what is enacted when one is performing one’s own life. (IMDb)
It was American filmmaker Robert Greene that mentioned the one obvious yet perfect definition I haven’t been using for cinémas du réel or documentaire de creation over the past few years: “non-fiction cinema”. I’ve read it elsewhere as well but for some reason I’d blocked it out (though in all fairness “non-fiction” it’s a more difficult concept to translate into Portuguese than cinéma du réel). Anyway; my screenings at IndieLisboa started out with a couple of good examples of that blurring of the lines between fiction and documentary, even if more fictional or projected – Tamer el Said’s very impressive In the Last Days of the City and Pablo Agüero’s more experimental Eva No Duerme – and I wrapped them up with a great little one-two punch of revisits: the consecutive presentations, in the main competition, of Petra Costa and Léa Glob’s Olmo and the Seagull and Mr Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, two films that run the gamut of what non-fiction can mean.
Funnily enough, the seagull in Olmo and the Seagull’s title is metaphorical – the film starts during a series of rehearsals for a new production of Tchekhov’s play – but there are actual seagulls in Kate Plays Christine, calmly walking around the sands of Sarasota Beach as actress Kate Lyn Sheil takes stock of what’s happening around her under dark stormy skies. It’s a passing connection for sure, but it’s also one that leads you into seeing more connections between these two very different films than meet the eye. They’re both anchored around women literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown, they’re both interested in performance as something that is constantly present in the lives of its heroines, they’re both interested in the way women are perceived as, professionally and personally.
Olmo and the Seagull is about an actress whose pregnancy makes her feel as if she is giving up on everything she worked towards all her life; Kate Plays Christine is about an actress researching for a film about a woman so frustrated about not being taken seriously that she prefers to commit suicide rather than to keep pushing on. Both films are about women at a crossroads in her own lives, but they’re also both about the blurring of the lines between performance and real life, and about pushing that line to the point where the viewer is forced to ask much deeper questions, even though they’re coming from entirely different spaces and places.
Olmo started life as a collaboration instigated by Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival between Ms. Costa, a Brazilian director with one feature already under her belt, and Ms. Glob, a Danish newcomer, who chose to document a day in the life of an actress. But it turned out that, during the initial phase of the shoot, Olivia Corsini, the Paris-based Italian actress they decided to follow, became pregnant, and the film changed tack, becoming a sort of “diary” of her pregnancy. It also becomes clear, very early on, that this isn’t a traditional documentary; a few scenes are self-evidently blocked and shot as reenactments, and occasionally you will hear offscreen voices asking Ms. Corsini and Serge Nicolaï, her life partner and fellow actor, to start all over again or change something in the performance. As for Kate Plays Christine, this long-gestating project of Mr. Greene (probably best known as editor to directors such as Alex Ross Perry but also an accomplished filmmaker of his own) was always designed around the questions left behind by the now-forgotten real-life suicide of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota anchorwoman who shot herself live on the air in 1974.
Ultimately, though, both films are about their nominal stars. Ms. Corsini in Olmo and the Seagull is grappling with the issues that motherhood brings to someone who until then was entirely devoted to the stage and to the craft of acting. The sheer physical needs of pregnancy, coupled with an unexpected health issue that restricts her ability to move freely, mean she will effectively have to eschew acting for the entire nine months, forcing an adjustment in her routine and her live that also has her questioning her choices. Ms. Sheil in Kate Plays Christine finds she has to invoke Ms. Chubbuck literally out of thin air; there’s practically no surviving footage of her work as a newscaster and precious little documentation of her life, other than in the minds of the few survivors who worked with her 40 years ago. How much of her “character” corresponds to the real-life Christine and how much is it her personal interpretation or projection of who she might have been?
In that sense, both are, interestingly enough, also films about process – the process of building a life, of constructing a performance, of becoming someone (yourself? someone else?), only a process that is being witnessed by a camera – and does it actually change the project itself? Kate Plays Christine follows the actual immersion into a character, and very clearly takes the side of the actress as Mr. Greene and his crew occasionally enter the frame to give directions or ask questions, but also asks just where lie the limits of performance; where is the actress “in control” (or is she ever in control actually), and where does the character take over the actress? Ms. Sheil’s own misgivings about the point of this process are also undoubtedly important. Why is it important to disinter this particular case from the muddy loam of forgotten fait-divers of 20th century America? In many ways, the film’s own context explains the why – Christine Chubbuck’s live suicide was a gloomy forewarning of a “society of spectacle” that was coalescing in the distance, the idea of real life itself as opium for the masses – but the questioning goes further, suggesting no innocence is possible when dealing with something this extreme. It’s a film that builds by patient accumulation of details, trusting the audience but also loyally warning it that this is going to be a tricky ride.
Olmo and the Seagull is a much more tricky beast: a very easy-going film at first sight, a second viewing reveals just how deceptive that lightness is. It’s a work carefully edited to suggest that looseness, following the daily stream-of-consciousness of Ms. Corsini’s thoughts – though this is not in fact the real Olivia Corsini, but a parallel “character” that feeds on the “real” person; a character that makes use of the actress’s real vulnerability and exposure as building blocks to delve into other areas of performance. The compressed time frame (though the film takes place during the nine months of a normal pregnancy, it could be a sort of “highlights reel”) is part of its ingeniously worked out structure; it’s a very light, breezy film about very serious things, about how insecurity and openness go hand in hand if you’re an actor, how real life and performance are almost inseparable even if you’re not an actor, how we all have doubts and issues as you realize your life is a series of choices you’re not always aware of making.
In that sense, I propose another way to look at both: as possible catalogues of paths spread out before the women at their core. Each step for Christine, Olivia and Kate is fraught with a significance entirely born from their status as women standing up for themselves in front of an audience, and whose choices are amplified and dissected because of that. How will they deal with it? And how real will that be?
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