29 October 1999
LM Interview: An American Love Story
New York film maker Jennifer Fox has shown that this need not be so. She spoke to Claire Fox at the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival earlier this month...
Karen Wilson and Bill Sims, a mixed race couple who have been together since they met in 1967, live with their teenage daughters, Cicily and Chaney in Queens, New York. You may not know this family yet, but in a fortnight's time you will be intimately acquainted with Karen's endomytreosis and hysterectomy, Bill's alcoholism, Cicily's dilemmas about ethnicity and 12 year old Chaney first date. Why? From Saturday evening, for seven consecutive nights after Newsnight, BBC2 are screening an extraordinary documentary series, An American Love Story, which is about their lives.
This may sound like a combination of some of the most irritating trends in British factual TV at present - a merging of Jerry Springer style problem-page TV and the people-watching docusoap. But the films are neither of these things and actually show you just how valuable documentary can be in documenting real life in an insightful way.
What is actually refreshing is that this is not a voyeuristic look at a dysfunctional family, but rather a celebration of how positive families can be. Jennifer Fox, the New York film maker who created An American Love Story, explains that while this is 'not a perfect family - they have problems', the family is still 'a place where one can get strength from, through sickness, child raising pains, growing pains'. These days the family is often viewed as a site of misery form child abuse to domestic violence. In this climate Fox knows that showing family life as a source of joy is 'pretty radical in today's terms'.
What is also intriguing is how surprising the family are. There is no room for stereotyping. The family look anti conventional in form, almost ideal talk show fodder. There is a reversal of gender roles as 'Mom has the corporate job and the Dad raised the babies and works night as a blues musician'. In America, a black man married to a white woman is still a curiosity and raises certain expectations. But as Fox says, don't try and second guess this family: 'In a funny way one of the contradictions of Bill and Karen is that they are very conservative and traditional as parents'. While most of the American press coverage has picked up on the mixed race theme as central, Fox hopes the series will 'take you on a journey where you realise that in fact race is not the biggest thing in their lives'. Rather it is one of many things that run in and out of their lives which they deal with when they have to. 'As you watch the films, you realise that as a family they deal with mostly everything that a same race couple would deal with'. That this series is bigger than the American race issue, with universal themes of family and love 'which speak to you beyond the specific'. has allowed the programmes to transfer from USA to Europe with few changes.
Fox is aware that her work might be seen in the tradition of the docusoaps, but is keen to point out that her work is more crafted. This craft is to have 'a talent to enter people's lives and then be prescient enough to have your camera in the right place at the right time without destroying their reality'. In some ways the programmes follow the now classic fly on the wall pattern. Hand held cameras trace the minutiae of every day life in the Wilson / Sims household. But for Fox this is simply a way of allowing form and content to work together:
'The content was that I wanted to follow a family for at least a year to see the mundane ways that their life evolved around race, family and love. Therefore the type of film making that follows a family around with a camera fits that intent - it's not very contrived, it's not fancy lighting. It looks simple - but it isn't. It should provide a kind of intimacy that looks incredibly simple and looks like there's no camera there.'
And indeed it is true that the family seem oblivious to the camera's intrusion, neither acting for our benefit nor whitewashing the more difficult parts of their lives. This was not a shallow smash and grab project, with filmmaker arriving in, filming all and then withdrawing. Jennifer literally joined the family - she lived with them for eighteen months from 1992-1994- and she continued doing interviews for the whole seven years that the series took to find funding and screening, creating 1000 hours of unedited rushes. The degree of trust she is afforded as a consequence of such an enormous personal investment to the project, pays off in allowing us both an intimate, but complex insight into the lives of one family.
That the project was so long term was not simply that Fox had to wait years for TV companies to realise exactly what a wonderful set of films she had created. Her long term involvement was also part of her method. Fox says that too much realite filmmaking is superficial 'because of the short amount of time that those film makers spend with their subject'. 'By definition you're not going to be intimate with anybody quickly'. She understands the constraints film makers are under, with imposed deadlines. But the concern is to 'get x, y and z in six weeks and edit it in another six weeks', with demand that the programme is dramatic, then 'of course it won't be intimate it will be constructed.'
The artificial construction of docusoaps becomes most obvious in relation to character. With little time to allow people's personalities to unfold, selecting characters because they are larger than life or eccentric is the only means of making the drama immediately obvious. Fox thinks that this approach really limits a filmmaker's role, which shouldn't be 'to find quirky characters who will act for you' but rather to discover the real character of the people the film is about. She fears that contemporary TV is too keen to just us caricatures which in turn make us imagine people are either good or bad when in fact they are both.
When Fox cast the family, she did have certain parameters: 'I wanted a successful interracial couple - I don't mean by that a perfect couple - but a rich, complex couple who had a vibrant family life. Not ordinary - in some ways - extraordinary.' But while she chose a couple whose story is fascinating, their personalities are rather unassuming. Bill is reserved - positively laid back. However, the time she spent with them allows the subtly of who they really are to emerge. She says her willingness to let relationships develop allows 'the subject to define itself in front of your eyes'. Letting both personalities, and the dramas which make up the narrative, enfold organically, is very different to a docusoap she says, which 'has a fairly clear form that maybe people don't realise' and has to force both the drama and the personalities out of the limits of the genre:
'Generally you have three subjects and the reason there is a central event like a cruise, or a driving school, is that the event gives it a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a short term so you film for that term. And you have three subjects who you juxtapose as a foolproof out against not having any drama happen because you don't have enough time to let the drama unfold before your eyes so the drama is created through that juxtaposition'
By allowing herself enough time, with no particular end point, Fox found that her American family were to provide her with enough real dramas, and no need for contrivance. Each episode has one or two clear stories which develop through out the series: Bill and Karen celebrate their wedding anniversary, daughter Cicily goes to the predominantly white Colgate university where she has to deal with issues of identity and ends up an unlikely member of a soriety; Bill returns to his hometown of Marion, Ohio, after his only son, Alton, from a previous relationship, is arrested for drug-trafficking; Bill and Karen go back to Prospect, Ohio, for a 25th High School reunion - revisiting the town which banished Karen years earlier for her relationship with a back man, and a place where Bill was regularly arrested by the sheriff as he tried to conduct his courtship of a local white girl.
Another distinction between what Fox calls verite filming and its crasser docusoap relative is the use of retrospective interviews, which allow for a layered effect. While the docusoap has a narrator, An American Love story has none, instead allowing the family to look back on experiences as a commentary, which is not simultaneous. 'It gives a richness because often when something is happening you don't know what's going on. But as you look back you add a kind of depth and understanding. If you just show the event or action, you don't know what people think or is motivating them.' But combined with interviews that have some perspective, you can achieve a kind of 'text and sub text as in a play'. Fox acknowledges that this leads to a truth that is 'not necessarily accurate in terms of what happens' but believes it gives 'a wholer portrait of the human being even if it distorted by the perspective that they didn't have at the moment'.
This perspective, allowed by working on a project for a long time, also allows the film maker time to understand what they have witnessed:
'If you film something in six weeks, edit it in six weeks and put it on the air at the three month mark, you have no clue what you just saw. It is functionally impossible to have any insight in that kind of speed'.
The additional device that Fox uses to add layers to her films is the interviews with none family members about specific incidents which allows one story to be told from a variety of points of view. For example, in the final episode, the memory of friends and family about Karen and Bill's early relationship raises questions about their own version of events. In one brilliant episode, when Cicily and fellow students spend a semester in Nigeria and the students split along race grounds, Cicily as a mixed race woman gives us one perspective, but other students give us their side of the story.
Fox hopes all of these devices allow her to arrive at some type of truth. She is worried that TV has become such an extremist representation of good in bad, that we may be loosing our sense of truth. She is aware that all films are constructions, but warns against bending the truth to fit the form. Her respect for finding the truth is refreshing- she feels one has to have 'a certain humility before reality - one doesn't use reality to express one's ego' and she is wary of an arrogance or over confidence in assuming that any film is the whole truth. She knows that this is not the Wilson Sims lives but rather a replication, and then only at a specific point in their lives:
'If their lives are made up of 360 degrees, this is maybe one degree. Hopefully that degree is truthful to the whole. But it's an effort.'
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