In its second year, DOC NYC offers a selection of portrait documentaries. All screening on 4 November, Buck, Lemon, and Kumaré tell very different stories in various ways, and each raises questions about how documentary portraits work.
Cindy Meehl’s Buck, popular throughout this year’s festival circuit, tells a story about Buck Brannaman. As I’ve noted before in PopMatters, its focus on the man who inspired the book The Horse Whisperer and served as an advisor on Robert Redford’s movie set is at once straightforward and not. As the movie observes him with his students, horse owners hoping against hope to understand and communicate with their animals, he is undoubtedly impressive. He travels from ranch to ranch, speaking to the camera as he drives or pauses to explain his methods. When he teaches, his students listen carefully to his instructions and stand alongside their horses, hoping they’ll hear in his instructions a solution, whether their animal is fearful or fierce, stubborn or prickly.
But clinics with Buck—as you might guess before the students do—usually end up teaching people less about their horses than themselves. “A lot of times,” Buck says, “Rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” Buck reveals he has his own issues—a severely abusive father when he was young and trained up to be a rodeo performer with his brother (who is not interviewed here), as well as a measurable loneliness now on the road, when he leaves his wife and children behind. While his clients (and he) extol his wisdom, Buck is also apt to chastise them for not being self-aware, as he’s been forced to be. When he chastises a woman for her carelessness with her horses, a carelessness that leads to a bad end for one of them, the film makes clear his stakes: he’s finding and saving victims, again and again. In so doing, he saves himself.
This part of Buck’s plot (and Buck‘s plot) is at once conventional and also cagey. As he thinks out loud about his own motivations, his carefully articulated earnestness extends from the show his students pay for to the film. But as he also suggests his lessons are not the solution for everyone, that some students might be unable to see themselves or to make use of what he offers, the film doesn’t resolve the problem.
Kumaré, directed by and starring Vikram Gandhi, comes at this problem from another direction. A young man who seems to be drifting nowhere from his birthplace in New Jersey, Gandhi comes on a project. Feeling cynical about the popularity of yoga and the very public American thirsting after community in “otherness,” he grows a beard and long hair and devises a character, Kumaré, a guru, drawn from images he’s absorbed as a child whose Indian-born parents made sure he attended traditional rituals.
The film tracks Ganghi’s efforts to gather together a set of acolytes, with the help of two pretty women assistants, orange robes, and a staff with a symbol of… something. Adopting a fake Indian accent, he makes up a set of lessons, mostly about finding inner strength inside yourself, and sets up a church in Phoenix, Arizona. He asserts in voiceover repeatedly that he intends to reveal himself to his followers at some point—that is, he never means to deceive anyone for a prolonged time, only to help them (and you) see the risks of such misplaced faith in gurus (or whatever sort) who will not, in the end, reveal their ruse.
Even during early encounters, he tells you, “Basically, I was just telling everybody I was fake,” though they seem disinclined to hear him. Instead, they listen to him intently and also speak to the documentary cameras, proclaiming their belief in Kumaré. “For some reason,” say Molly,” I just know that I’m gonna have a little more time with this guy.” Another young woman admires his house, where she sits by the pool and gazes on his face. “I’m very aware of power versus force,” she attests, “And I feel like I’ve been forcing my marriage to work for a long time.” And still another: “I’ve done other personal development work, this is the first time I felt a change in my DNA.”
Gandhi both exploits and expresses his discomfort with what seem like crushes; he never says it, but the film’s choices of subjects suggest that the majority of his followers are white and middle class, a cultural and political context that remains unspoken here. Gandhi is strangely earnest, even in his parody. (It’s a mode of seeming confessional filmmaker that recalls Catfish or I’m Still Here, last year’s most sensational explorations of the intersections of documentary and performance.) As he worries about his own increasing involvement with his students, he wonders aloud why they come to him, and moreover, why he liked them coming to him. “It’s like when your mother tells you, ‘Be careful the face you make, because it will stay like that.’”
The face Gandhi makes is, of course, shaped by the film, partly his own design and partly your reception of it. The film makes vivid and vaguely discomfiting fun of a couple of other guru types Kumaré meets (their followers believe themselves to be from different planets), and an “acoustic theologist (“In the beginning was the Word, vibration. God is sound”). Though he says that he’s moved by his students’ belief in him and frets over their responses to him—in scenes that show him fretting, pacing and holding his head (if you see it, it must be true?)—it’s never quite clear in Kumaré when the shift comes, whether this was the plan for the documentary or emerged in the editing room or even in the moments recorded. That the film explores at least in part the ways that relationships and beliefs are projections, based in desire, it makes points that are at once obvious and troubling. This suggests that you are responsible for your readings of Gandhi’s self-performances, before his students and also for the film.
Lemon constitutes anther sort of exploration, most plainly how collisions of poverty and celebrity produce stereotypes, myths, and also forms of truth. Laura Brownson and Beth Levison’s documentary begins where another one might have ended, as Lemon Andersen, a newly released felon from the projects, achieves success as part of Russell Simmons’ Deaf Poetry Jam. The TV show leads to a Broadway show, and then a Tony Award, and the slam poets and performers who have come up from the streets are giddy with success and money. Lemon describes how great it was, that he bought big TVs and everyone liked him. When the show ends, he’s out of money and back in the hood. Specifically, he and his wife Marilyn Andersen and their two young daughters move in with her brother and their mother.
Still, Lemon insists that he can make a living performing. He find backing from the American Place Theater’s David Kener, who proclaims that theater needs to “talk to kids.” To do that, he says, “The conventions don’t work, we need new voices desperately.” Kener finds one of these voices in Lemon. Or so he thinks.
The movie documents Lemon’s work on his one-man show, County of Kings (The Beautiful Struggle), in which he looks at his relationship with his mother (who died of cancer when he was only 14), his struggles in the neighborhood (drugs, gangster-posing), and his troubled relationship with his brother. The autobiography is filtered through poetry, noisy and brilliant and compelling. He’s good on stage, the show seems a likely success. The problems, as you might expect, have to do mounting the show, with funding and directing, with corporate supporting. Meetings with producers and other people involved in the process tend to end on reaction shots by Lemon, looking disgruntled, just before he notes in voiceover how little these other people—frequently white women—understand his work and experience.
At the same time, the film also considers Lemon’s difficulties at home. Marilyn’s insights are very helpful, for you, anyway, even as he withdraws, sullen and resentful of deals falling through and threats the show won’t go on. When she sees they’re not communicating, she notes that he has his writing, in notebooks, as a means to work things out for himself: she begins writing on the bedroom wall, an effort to get him to notice that she has ideas and reactions too. The film takes its cue from Lemon, extolling Marilyn’s embodiment of his essential support system.
All of these performances, in Buck, Lemon, and Kumaré, are reflections as much as they are original creations. And that may be the films’ most compelling reveals, performances are produced with audiences.