Every family is unique and each one has its own personal stories to tell. Scottish-born artist and filmmaker Karen Guthrie puts her own family under the spotlight in her low scale but no less effective documentary The Closer We Get (2015). The film, which was featured at the Scottish Documentary Institute’s Edinburgh Pitch last year, is an intimate and quietly moving portrait of Karen’s family in the wake of a stroke that left her mother Ann incapacitated. As her family – father Ian and three siblings – all return to the nest and rally around to take care of their mother, Karen takes the opportunity to peel back the lid on their unconventional situation and ask the questions that have been plaguing her for years.
Through a collection of unsolicited interviews, home video footage and photos, the history of the Guthrie family unravels at a slow and steady pace. Strikingly candid it always feels like the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. At a time when all four children were growing up fast, Ian left the home suddenly to take up work in Djibouti. His promise of regular phone calls and letters were dashed, his departure leaving a massive gap in the dynamic that is slowly but unconvincingly paved over. Even when Ian returns many years later, the chasm is acutely felt – only to widen further when details of Ian’s secret life and illegitimate child come to light, shocking his estranged wife to the very core. The reverberations of his actions are felt throughout The Closer We Get, not one single person in the family able to tease out of him the real reason behind his sudden departure.
As time passes, and Ann’s unfortunate situation requires constant care, Ian edges his way back into the household, but never truly back into the family he left behind. It’s remarkable – and horrifyingly accurate – to observe the way in which the past is compartmentalised and glossed over in favour of a steady, calm future. Even as Karen grows more confident with the questions she asks, only a fraction of the family’s real emotions are revealed, mostly they remain tightly locked up in the individuals’ hearts and minds for reasons unknown. The Closer We Get may be a small film, without any clear resolution or dramatic crux, but it’s poignant and powerful nonetheless – or perhaps because of that. A portrait of one unique family whose secrets and suppressions strike a universal chord, resembling many other families like it all around the world – each with its own narrative.
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