Published  28/09/2016

Karen Guthrie: ‘Family history is a hidden pain with lots of people. A film can bring those things to the surface’

Karen Guthrie: ‘Family history is a hidden pain with lots of people. A film can bring those things to the surface’

The film-maker talks about her incredibly successful and amazingly raw and personal documentary of her family history, The Closer We Get


It is every artist’s ambition to make their work touch a nerve, prompting a sense of both shock and recognition, a moment of connection and insight. Karen Guthrie (b1970) has nearly two decades’ worth of highly regarded participatory art and short film-making to her name, working as one half of Pope & Guthrie, along with creative partner Nina Pope. But her film-making career entered the stratosphere in 2015, after the release of her first solo full-length documentary feature, The Closer We Get.

Winner of almost every major documentary film award (including Hot Docs Best International Feature 2015), The Closer We Get has been feted, touching a raw spot with audiences all over the world. It was shown on BBC Scotland this summer.

The Closer We Get is a warts-and-all portrait of Guthrie’s Scottish family, which, with the utmost skill and sensitivity, reveals the extraordinary within the ordinary. In the 1980s, the Guthries are the epitome of middle-class stability: an accountant father, Ian, and a mother, Ann, who stays home to look after four boisterous kids. But then they have to accommodate Ian’s decision to head off to Africa, leaving his wife with their four teenage children. A few years later, Ian reveals that he has set up a new family in Ethiopia, followed by a bigger surprise when he decides to bring his young Ethiopian son, Campbell, back to spend time with his Scottish family. Perhaps most surprising of all is their silent accommodation of this new family member, and their adaptation to the “new normal”.

Filmed nearly 30 years after the initial betrayal, The Closer We Get begins while the family is experiencing a new trauma – Ann has had a stroke that has left her almost paraplegic. Here’s another twist: her estranged ex-husband has moved in to look after her. While sharing the care of her mother with her father and brother Mark, Guthrie seizes this moment to explore what underpinned Ian’s historic decision, re-examine how it impacted on them all, and learn a huge amount about love and loyalty along the way.

The Closer We Get has just been released on DVD and VOD. Studio International caught up with Guthrie just before another set of screenings pulled her away from her UK base to encounter yet more moments of emotional connection and recognition from audiences in Hungary, Russia and China.

Veronica Simpson: Making the film took about two years, but you must have been completely unprepared for how, after its release, it would demand so much of you in terms of ongoing screenings, awards and talks, never mind how personally people took the film, judging by their reactions at Q&As?

Karen Guthrie: I have never made such a personal film. It’s an odd thing. I couldn’t prepare for it. The only indication I got in terms of what it would demand from me was when I did the Indiegogo [crowdfunding] campaign and, for the first time, I was speaking professionally about the project, but without anything to show. I was putting my confession out there. A lot of acquaintances, and strangers, got in touch with me during that campaign and shared private material with me. I got the indication there that this project was going to trigger that in people and I’d better get used to it. I had some unbelievable moments at the end of screenings when people would come up to me and sometimes just download their experiences on to me.

VS: It is that kind of film. But you would think, after all this time, that people would have seen other films that triggered those moments of recognition – about family dysfunction, lies, betrayals and forgiveness.

KG: It’s a very hidden pain with lots of people. And a film can bring those things up to the surface in a way that’s it’s hard for other art forms to do.

VS: It’s also to do with the skilled pacing and narrative arc of the film. By two-thirds of the way into the film, we feel we have seen the worst of what the family has endured, and we have got used to Ian being around. We sense the warmth and connection between not just Ian and Ann, but also you and Ian. And then (spoiler alert), he announces that he’s going off to Ethiopia to see his old girlfriend, Campbell’s mother; and then he ends up marrying her. As a member of the audience, you feel horrified and betrayed all over again: that he’s gone and left his wife – for the same woman – twice! The audience really doesn’t see that coming.

KG: The end of our film is quite sustained. It’s quite anxious. There’s a kind of tension in it, which never really releases. And then you have that almost euphoric monologue from my mother at the end about happiness, when Ian comes back. When I had that on film, I realised I could build the end around it. It was important to me that (Ann’s) death wasn’t the end of the film. And that we would know that Ann had died, but it was really important to not make that part of the story, to bring a really elevated spiritual atmosphere to the end of the film through her wisdom.

The last part of the film was really storyboarded, compared with the rest of the material, which was sifted through acres of documentary filming. I storyboarded the end section, shot and wrote things especially for it, and built it up like a little religious painting. I really concentrated on getting that atmosphere. The credits are very necessarily quite long, because people actually have to compose themselves - especially if they know I’m going to pop up. That’s really hard in some Q&As. Now, I can laugh about all these things, but if you’d met me three or four years ago and I’d have to project to this point and these encounters, I’d have had a heart attack. I couldn’t have imagined coping with it. The whole thing’s been a huge personal growth experience.

VS: Yet, initially, you had a very different movie in mind: you were going to make a movie where you and your mother set out to find out what happened all those years ago, and why Ian did what he did. But then your mum’s stroke railroaded that. One of the amazing things is all the footage you have from before – video footage of you and your family at home, with your Ethiopian half-brother Campbell, from when you were an art student and at later gatherings.

KG: I think I’m the camera in the family, and I always was, even as a young child, always drawing and sketching and trying to step outside the family to document, to do my own work. I was this contrary child. I now see that it was my way of both talking about, and coping with, this strangeness in my family. My siblings felt it, too, but as an artist you have this incredible gift, it’s a facility. It’s almost a way of getting yourself out of a difficult situation, but also a way of talking about it for the rest of the world to grasp.

VS: It’s like a sixth sense almost, an ability to represent visually what you and others are feeling.

KG: It is like that, and I think when you’re going through grief as well, it’s a huge help to have this other thing to lean on that helps you cope with emotional turmoil. Other people take to drink. I was like a thing possessed. While I was caring for my mother, I still had other work to do and my relationship to manage. I had all these things to juggle. And I somehow managed it. It was almost a state of heightened awareness in the world. I felt creative and knackered and energised exactly at the same time. I felt like a ball of energy. I felt every week might be the last one I had to work on the project; the last one in which my family would feel like my family any more. I felt the whole thing was teetering. And that’s an incredible thing over a sustained period. I felt the film was … a way of just staying with that feeling and exploring it.

VS: What was the schedule – from the point where you thought: “We’re going to make a film about what happened with Dad,” to when your mum had a stroke and the filming began in earnest?

KG: The first talking-head, conventional interview with my mum when she was well was three weeks before the stroke, in 2008. And I’d thought about the film on and off for several years. I knew it was a great story. Since my early 20s, if anyone got to know me and I started to tell them that story, I got very used to their jaw dropping. And I got used to knowing it was an interesting story and that we didn’t seem that kind of a family, but I put it on the back burner.

I had only been making films for 10 years. I don’t see myself as a narrative film-maker really. The usual films Nina Pope and I make are quirky leftfield documentaries. Bata-ville (2003-5) [a documentary in which former employees of two now-closed Bata shoe factories are taken by Pope and Guthrie on a coach trip to the Moravian town where the Bata shoe empire began] is quite a cult film now. Lots of people talk about it as a travelogue or a road movie, but it’s also using history as a fantastical script from which to develop narratives about remembering and the past. Bata-ville involved lots of different people on this coach journey. Living With the Tudors (AKA Sometime Later, 2007) is about historical re-enactors inhabiting the past as a way of escaping. These are all themes that I think are in The Closer We Get, but I’m examining them through other people.

VS: It’s almost as if you have been flexing those film-making muscles through these other movies, in preparation for the big one.

KG: Yes, I think so. And I’ve been learning how to deal with ordinariness. I was on a panel with [British documentary film-maker] Kim Longinotto in Ireland last summer, and she talked a lot about how she wanted to praise the boldest women in her films and shine a light on the really brave women she admired. I said, actually I’m increasingly interested in the opposite. For me, it’s our job as film-makers – and maybe as women film-makers – to not go after the big stories. To say: hold on a minute, all of these women – even if they just look like they’re cleaning the floor - are enduring epic narratives. How do we make those real and make them feel as important as they really are, and elevate these ordinary people? I saw that in my mother. She felt she had nothing to add to the world apart from being a good mum. She was incredibly modest. And to see her going through, over time, this biblical narrative, you just think: wow, that’s enormous. It’s a handicap being so close to a story like that. But then I thought, no one else can get under the ordinariness of my family like I can. No other film-maker can come to that situation and get anything from it.

VS: It is through those wonderful ordinary moments that so much is revealed. My favourite scene is probably the one where your brother, whose relationship with your dad is clearly difficult, walks into the room while your dad is pecking away at the computer (for all we know, he’s corresponding with his Ethiopian girlfriend). And your brother is trying to talk with him, find out how your mum is, what she’s eaten that day, and your dad is ignoring him. All this while, your brother is picking up the cat, cradling it like a baby, showing such tenderness, and fondling its paws with such care. The affection he shows the cat – which the cat returns – is such a poignant counterpoint to your dad’s indifference.

KG: That scene was so often almost on the cutting room floor. We actually all loved it - Alice, my editor, and I. This was the benefit of just making it ourselves, without executives or commissioners. We could eventually say we both really like that scene. OK, you can’t really hear what Mark is saying. But it’s all about body language. It’s about men and it’s really touching.

‘My dad is nearly 81 now. He has aged quite rapidly since the film was made, because he doesn’t have the caring responsibility. For so many years, he was very necessary in a way that he had never been. He just bolted right in there. When I first started filming with my mother, it was late 2011. And her slide in the year before that from her stroke had been really rapid. (In the film) you almost have this talking head. She’s almost quadriplegic, which makes her presence more powerful. But a year before, she was still writing and still feeding herself.

‘I’ve heard that some people just cannot come to terms with what’s happened to them (after a stroke). They are angry and resistant. I don’t know what happened in my mum’s case, but something in her found a state of … acceptance, and an incredible kind of mindfulness. She couldn’t forget the past, but she lived in the moment. She could just enjoy food, or the garden, or the cat, or a joke. All those 50 to 60 years of looking after other people, she just let it slough off and it was great to see this really quite spiritual person emerge, who could enlighten everybody around her, and that was also really important to me: that I could somehow capture that. She’s sitting in the corner of a room, but she’s still the centre of gravity, in the way she always had been, but as a busy mum. Suddenly, she wasn’t saying very much, but she was still owning this room.

VS: There is also something so powerful about the ordinary scenes you show of people caring for her, with all the ugliness of the equipment – the lifting paraphernalia – around her. As an artist, the last thing you might want is all that visual clutter, and yet what is most prominent in those scenes is people’s tenderness and kindness.

KG: I think making a good-looking film is important to me, but it’s so natural, it comes very naturally to me and to Nina, who did all the moving camera work. On the whole, it looks great. Some scenes have a sense of claustrophobia, but then you have the distance between two people in some of those domestic scenes, where they are perched at either corner of the shot. It all gelled with what I was trying to do. I found a cinematography that worked. If I got up at night and couldn’t sleep, I’d play with the camera, set up a shot of my mum sleeping and I did lots of filming at night, of the town. I sort of connected with this town, which I’d known intimately as a young person but hadn’t really spent time in since I was 18. To go back to a place that is imprinted on your memory like that is a big part of The Closer You Get. It’s the place where I became a creative person, where I had to discover that. I wasn’t brought up in an artistic family. That townscape was all we had. I connected with that part of myself that had had that change as a young person, and I felt it again. I was in my element, really. I knew that place like the back of my hand. Seaside is edge-land, slightly neglected, with all its amusement arcades and popcorn, and then this tight knot of a tragic story. These are important frames. In a way, I felt lucky: as a film-maker, you’d meet people who’d say: “I’m making a film about the Arab spring,” and then you’d find four other film-makers making the same film. I would sit there, thinking: nobody’s making my film.

VS: The narration is also beautifully judged: the voiceover is fairly light touch, but what you say is profound, memorable and yet very economical.

KG: This was such a private story for so long. Documenting it with the camera didn’t seem the same as saying it. Saying it seemed so much more public. And I didn’t want to say it. Now I’ve said it in the film, it’s incredibly liberating to feel – not just me, but my whole family feel it – as if we’ve all benefited that this thing is out. It’s terrifying and quite liberating. My dad turns up at screenings. He came to one in Scotland recently where there were some quite pointed questions abut him as a father, from a person in the audience, who knew he was there … This man said: “Why couldn’t your father express his love for you when he was younger? Why did he put himself in that position so that, towards the end of your mother’s life, he could demonstrate love but he could never show it to you earlier?”

I said: “Well, in my opinion, we have a national problem with this. It’s also a generational issue.” I was trying to work out whether my dad wanted to speak. I also said: “I think it’s how you were brought up.” He was brought up in a quasi-Edwardian upper-middle-class Scottish environment, where to talk about your emotions was weakness.

But my dad piped up and said a few things, like: “People of my age and background do find it quite difficult to say these things out loud.”

VS: Many men of his generation will recognise that – and their  wives and children will recognise it, too.

KG: The northern male has a problem. When we sold the film, the first TV transmission was in Finland. Because they have those silent men that everyone is looking at and projecting on to them, What are they thinking?, What’s going on with that silent man in the corner?, the film speaks to anyone who has had that: that sense of the alien in your room that you’re actually related to … but also that you love.

Women in America were especially vocal. We had one standing up at the end saying: “Your mother was a strong woman, she should have thrown him out.” No one has ever said anything to me in a screening that I’ve been offended by. I’ve always thought the emotional connection in the audience is real and it’s true, and if you’re angry about my dad, let’s talk about it. That’s the impact it has made when I put that film out there. I have to expect that emotional complexity. Making the film has made me ready for it in a way that’s fantastic; the fear I felt about getting the film out there, as I worked on it, it lessened.

VS: At what point did you feel not just that this is cathartic, but it’s going to be OK; this is going to be a good film?

KG: Until you screen it with an audience of strangers, you don’t know. When it got into Hot Docs, which is the most competitive film festival ever … Every film-maker in my position has put a film into that festival and they just write it off, thinking: I’m never going to get in. I had no executives, I had no commissioners, no big names attached to my film. And I just thought: you don’t get into those big festivals without those things. I paid my $40, I got assessed with everyone else. Then I got a phone call. I was at the Slade [School of Fine Art], doing the first bit of teaching I’d done for years because I wasn’t looking after my mum any more. I was just sitting doing my admin. I got this phone call from Canada. And these two very silent tears came down my face. I realised how much fear I had built up in myself that I was making a film to satisfy me, and that Alice, my loyal editor, was doing this to support me. You’ve always got that little voice in the back of your mind saying, maybe you’re just undergoing a personal catharsis that everyone else is finding really boring … like when you tell people your dreams. And as time went on and we couldn’t get funding, I was very anxious about it. And I kept thinking: if it was really that good I would be able to get some funding. But (because of Ann’s ill health), I couldn’t wait a year to get funding, I just had to get on with it. Alice would periodically review the material and say: “This is great. This is such amazing material. Stay with it. It’s going to be OK!” I did feel a huge confidence in the material. But I didn’t feel I’d make it to the end of the experience in one piece with enough energy to cut a film from it. I thought I’d just collapse with a great bag of footage on a hard drive. It’s easily 300/400 hours. I’d lived that and I’d watched it back.

VS: The film is quite fearless in showing the pain and repressed emotion, but that is balanced with so much care and quiet reconciliation, even though your dad is completely unapologetic. It’s ugly at times, and difficult, but it’s so recognisably life: there are no tidy resolutions. And – most radical of all - it stares old age squarely in the face.

KG: The future for all of us is about negotiating old age, with second, third and fourth-blended families. There are lots of complexities. And it’s so interesting. My film is saying: actually, it’s been like that for a while. Let’s just get used to the reality of these complex family models these complex relationships, and see it as part of the fabric of where we are.

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