The Closer We Get is the closing gala film at this year’s Open City documentary festival, screening on 22nd July at the new (though very old) Regents Street cinema. It’s from the filmmaker points a camera at her own family genre of documentary, as Karen Guthrie heads home to Scotland to care for her mother Ann who has just had a stroke.
To begin with the film plays out as you would expect, showing the difficult transitions for all the family in such a situation. Overnight Ann has been rendered helpless. Her mind is still active but she needs constant care. Karen forces herself to be busy, trying to hide her sadness at what is happening.
But the film is taken in unexpected directions by the behaviour – both current and historical – of Karen’s father Ian. Although the mother’s stroke has brought the family together again, it is Ian’s unusual life choices that give the film its drive. Ann’s good-humoured decline is jigsawed between revelations about the family history and a final reel of the you couldn’t make it up variety.
Ian left Ann when Karen and her brother and sister were much younger. He headed to Africa, returning only once a year. They have since divorced but Ian and Ann have always been close. Now that Ann is ill, Ian has returned to the house and is helping out with the care. For the first time in years the family become closer and Karen starts to let her father back into her life.
There is a sense when watching that we are privy to family secrets that do not need to be told, a feeling that Karen is using the filmmaking process as a way of discovering more about her father. At one point she says she has put her life on hold to go and help. This is true, and yet she is clearly making a film and getting professional benefit from events.
The difficulty of changing our behaviour patterns is clear, as are the long-lasting effects on children of their parents’ behaviour. The film demonstrates the ways that humans manage to cope with the complications life throws up and ponders the characteristics we (unwillingly) inherit from our parents.
The repetitive background music becomes annoying, but the film is a sad tale humorously told.