In the opening moments of Karen Guthrie’s understated and extremely moving The Closer We Get (2015) her car glides along darkened roads at twilight, the way ahead lit only as far as low beams will permit. The notion of driving into the unknown and of unseen elements hidden in obscure surroundings is a clear metaphor for a highly personal, even therapeutic, ninety-minute journey of discovery, understanding and acceptance that the documentary filmmaker embarks upon more for her own good than ours.
As vicarious spectator, a viewer witnesses the remarkable story of the Guthrie family, who have more than a few skeletons in a number of closets. Returning to her hometown of Largs, to the west of Glasgow, Karen joins her three siblings and father in taking care of Ann, mother, wife and matriarchal centre of gravity around whom all other members orbited until she suffered a stroke to leave her confined to home and unable to walk or even feed herself. The outward appearances of a family clubbing together in hard times are undercut by an ominous undertone in Karen’s narration which suggests that all may not be as it seems.
The cause of Ann’s stroke is never explicitly stated but the lasting ill effects of former husband Ian’s decade long job posting to Djibouti many years previously and subsequent estrangement from the family are responsible for much of the intrigue here. A bellowing bull of a man, it is Ian’s secrets and lies that are the crux of The Closer We Get and in achieving both a new found emotional closeness with her father and a closeness with the truth, Karen attempts to reach a long-awaited and much needed catharsis. Thankfully, there are no Jeremy Kyle-style slanging matches here but The Closer We Get is all the more powerful for its quiet contemplation of deep seated anguish and resignation; what is left unsaid between the family has a far longer lasting effect than any verbal confrontation would. Indeed, few, if any, conversations occur face to face and opening channels of communication is one of the real challenges to be affronted here.
One of Guthrie’s most telling admissions is her stoicism, reticence and inability to demand the truth; characteristics which she deems are hereditary traits. Content to make small talk about the time change between Scotland and Djibouti, and unable to affront the past head- on, it is through the omnipotent lens of her camera – which often lingers longer than is strictly necessary – that the truth will out. The intimate realism of the tale allows it to transcend what would be possible in a fictional film and its insularity – made about the family by one of the family – ensures that it is a poignant, unerring and simultaneously heart-warming and heartbreaking portrait of dealing with the demons of an unspoken past.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens