Next week, beginning on Wednesday, the nonfiction film festival DOC NYC comes to downtown Manhattan. Among the films making their New York bows is the festival favorite Kati with an I about an Alabama teen on the cusp of her high school graduation. Last week the film received a Gotham Awards nomination in the category of Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You (previous winners have included You Won’t Miss Me, Sita Sings the Blues and Frownland; all five of this year’s nominees play at MoMA in November). We asked director Robert Greene a few questions about the film over email.
Your film follows Kati “with an I” through three tumultuous days at the end of high school. Kati’s your half-sister—at what point did she become an inspiration for a feature film?
Well, Kati and I didn’t grow up together but she always ended up as the subject of my camera experiments, student films, class projects, etc. (many fragments of which made it to this film). She was even the photo subject of an ex-girlfriend’s award-winning stills. She has something the camera likes. So when she was about to graduate, I called my pal, the great cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who had filmed her before as well) and talked him into capturing Kati’s graduation and the days leading up to it. We were never sure it was going to be a film. It just as easily could have ended up a graduation gift. A story developed and the film happened, almost like magic. At the time we had no idea how fateful those days were.
For a long time, documentary films, filmmakers and audiences have been dogged by the question of whether people act differently when they know they’re being filmed (Fred Wiseman is said to follow his subjects with an empty camera for a month or so before he starts filming, to acclimate them). What’s different about filming people who were born in the 1990s, and have been on camera their whole lives? (Although I suppose the family relationship complicates the question somewhat…)
There is a different kind of honesty, I think, with kids that are constantly obsessed with projecting their identities as images. When you put the camera on them, you are definitely getting a performance. But with modern teens, this performance is constantly happening whether you’re there with your camera or not. With all the ways teens mediate their own experiences, they’ve become expert “subjects,” able to tap into emotions and longings that we may have been more protective of in the past.
Somewhat along those lines, what do you think is the value of a professional document of adolescent drama, when teens are so caught up in documenting and publicizing their emotional experiences themselves?
Our job (if that’s what you’d call it) was to penetrate the facade, if you will, and get past the typical narcissism inherent in the act of constant self-documentation. If you hold a shot for some time or film the mundane in a certain way, other truths will emerge. Our story is built on some real tension over three tumultuous days. But what we were able to see, and what the audience hopefully sees, is a more universal, sort of “invisible” sadness that one experiences when they’re being dragged into adulthood. Movies can show things that instant social media culture can’t.
Your film has been compared to Gus Van Sant for its lyrical approach to adolescence—and I’ve lately seen a number of films whose makers have applied a shoegaze-y arthouse plangency to the lives of more pop-oriented working-class kids. I wonder, is there a difference in sensibilities you’re conscious of reconciling?
Well, meaningless lyricism is useless and boring. And no one, including “pop-oriented” teens wants to see it. If a film is shoegazing for it’s own sake, then these kids are showing great wisdom in not paying any attention. I’m also really wary of making a film in which the subjects of the film would never watch it. That’s one reason why it’s really important for me that Kati calls it “her film.” On the other hand, most of the “pop-oriented” depictions of teenage life are a waste of time. When was the last film or TV show that you saw that made you feel like a teen again or helped you really understand what that mindset is? That’s what we were after.