[6 November 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Some things never took place like they should have for him.
“Some in Town Stand Behind Man Accused of Shooting Mother.” As filmmaker Sheila Canavan tells it, this headline in a smalltown Maine newspaper caught her attention in 2002. In pursuing the story, she and Michael Chandler sought to “understand” how a community could condone attempted matricide, and what such support suggests about expectations, values, and identities.
The result of their investigation is Knee Deep, premiering 6 November as part of PBS’ Independent Lens. The film introduces Josh Osborne, who dropped out of the school as a child in order to work on his father’s dairy farm in Farmington, Maine. Seated comfortably in what seems a small den, Josh smiles while remembering the choice offered by his father, Ollie: “All of a sudden, like sixth grade, I think it was, my father asked me, ‘You want to go to school?’ and I was like, ‘Hell no,’ you know, and I didn’t go to school.” As the film reveals right away, he and his girlfriend Donna were accused of trying to murder his mother, Janette, when she tried to evict him from the farm after his father died.
While the crime in and of itself seems compelling, Knee Deep is actually less interested in the details of who did what—Who fired the .22 that wounded Janette? Who shot at her tires with a .30-30 as she drove herself to the hospital? Why did she refuse to name the shooter(s) in court?—than in the multiple stories that emerged. The movie does not come to a determination about who did it, or even who got away with doing it (for the “competing” statements by Josh and Donna led eventually to their convictions on lesser charges and two-year sentences). Instead, its assembly of various observations and assessments provides ground for reconsidering how memory constructs self-images, not to mention judicial proceedings.
“I have memories about it,” says Josh of working the farm as part of a happy family, “But I was so young, I don’t really remember it. Maybe it’s just something I fantasize about now remembering.”
This remarkable bit of self-analysis sets up the film’s thematic focus. If Josh doesn’t have hold of early memories—illustrated here by snapshots of smiling kids and Janette alongside cows and Ollie in the barn—he does recall more recent experiences, as these shaped his desire to stay on the farm. The farm, he says, was “like heaven”; he loved the labor, wearing himself out so he could sleep at night. Over close shots of Josh tending to cows and calves, his Uncle Jeff explains, “It’s a terrible life as far as work, but then again, it’s rewarding because you see what you’ve done, you see what you’ve raised.”
Josh’s dedication to the farm becomes a running theme in the film, as well as justification for his anger at Janette. Early photos and narration by relatives suggest she was a dedicated wife to Ollie, working daily shifts on the farm even as she grew to resent the isolation and limitations. Josh’s sister Julie recalls, “I don’t feel my mom had any friends before she started nursing.” Indeed, the story goes, around the same time her young son dropped out of school, Janette started nursing school, where she discovered options: women with jobs outside the home, families who went on vacations, careers that didn’t demand the sort of all-consuming physical and emotional commitments Ollie made to his.
Unable to interview Ollie (who years ago died of cancer) or Janette (who declined to be interviewed, but did exchange letters with them), the filmmakers get at the experience of being a “farm wife” through other interviewees: neighbors, cousins, and uncles whose stories aren’t exactly the Osbornes’, but instead offer possible glosses, differences, and similarities. Kneading dough and filling pie tins as she speaks, The Pie Lady (Robin Chase) testifies to her own sense of difficulty and loneliness. “You ask yourself, ‘Why are we doing this?,” she says, adding that if she was stuck on the farm like Janette was, she would have quit too (tearing up, she notes how hard it is not to be able to visit a daughter now living in Bangor: “I can’t do everything I want to do”). Intercut with Robin’s interview are host of her husband in the barn, worrying about the toll that working on the farm takes on his own 12-year-old son. “You need to have sort of appreciation as a kid,” observes Robin, “That you’re not just child labor.”
While the Chases appear to be a more self-aware alternative to the Osbornes, Josh maintains that he made the choices he wanted to make. The film doesn’t challenge him outright, but its essential argument is that no all knowledge is by definition subjective and incomplete. Among the most compelling examples of this premise is Janette’s “reenactment” video, made for the court. As a narrator recounts her testimony as to what happened, she appears in a long shot on blurry videotape, standing by her clothesline. On hearing a “pop,” she realizes she’s been shot, then runs to her car, and drives off, hearing two more shots. As Josh phrases it, “I can’t believe I shot at the car, but I really did do that, honestly. I wanted to stop her. I didn’t want her going to the hospital with a bullet hole in her. That was something I didn’t want her to do, for some reason.”
His ambiguous language reflects not only the likely deficiency of his memory, but also his performance for the camera. Everyone in the film has a story, some intersecting, others conflicting. No one comes to an agreement over who shot at Janette or her car. What small agreement exists comes in the reasons for the crime. “I never told my mother I didn’t shoot her,” says Josh. “Let I think I did, for all I care about her.” As you mull over the acrobatics of that statement, he continues: “She’s a mother. If she actually loved her kid, she wouldn’t have done what she did to me.” And so the film leaves you with a range of subjects, each responsible in his or her own way.