Is Life Real in 'I'm Still Here'?

The question is not whether the new Joaquin Phoenix or even the movie is a hoax -- all documentaries show performances, selves designed for cameras. The more interesting question has to do with you: do you want to believe the film, and why?

I'm Still Here

Director: Casey Affleck
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Sean Combs, Edward James Olmos, Mos Def
Rated: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-10 (Limited release)

"I'm just fucking, like, stuck, in this ridiculous, like, self-imposed prison." Joaquin Phoenix does look a little stuck. Pacing so the camera handled by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, is mostly watching his back, he wears a sweatshirt hood and dark glasses. "Am I truly complicated and intense?" he asks, but not, like, really. He's agreed to do this documentary with his best friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck, he goes on, because he doesn't want to "play the character Joaquin anymore." He's insists that he doesn’t care whether you hate him or like him, and says he only wants to be understood.

Like most every performance in I’m Still Here, this one is unconvincing. That doesn’t mean it's not earnest or authentic. It only means that in its manifest effort to vex, the act is pretty much exactly what it purports to repudiate. Cut to Phoenix waving a broom at a bird, at some unknown time, stuck inside his studio, a metaphor only slightly less heavy-handed than the home movie footage of Phoenix-as-a-child jumping into water, his dad his audience. A couple of scenes later, in "San Francisco, 2008," he's telling a reporter he's decided to quit. (Why did he say it, Edward James Olmos asks many months later, at which point Phoenix self-assesses: "I don't know, I opened my mouth and the fucking words came out!") The story spreads quickly, as does the related news that Phoenix is now a rapper named JP, because rap allows real self-expression -- which suggests he doesn't listen to much of it, or that he knows exactly how silly he looks and sounds when he puts on his suit and white shirt and holey knit cap and blusters his way through a song on stage.

His audience in these moments looks aptly tentative, alternately mystified, bored, and mustering enthusiasm as the camera pans their faces. If their acts are less consistent than Phoenix's, they do indicate the interdependence of artist and audience, the mutual faith or doubt that shapes their relationship. Phoenix right away confronts charges that he's fooling. When he seeks out P. Diddy to produce his rap CD, Phoenix confronts suspicions: "I think he thinks you're not serious," observes an associate, that the retirement and the shift to rapping (another elaborate act) constitute a hoax. If Phoenix's move is something like a response to the hoax of acting per se, the movie is not a hoax but an agreement between viewers and performers.

For all the shocky-shock antics presented here -- Phoenix smokes dope, snorts cocaine, abuses his assistants, and buries his face in a hooker's breasts -- the film also dramatizes the costs of living inside a relentlessly cruel and demanding business. It's "hard" to be a high profile actor, Phoenix laments, concerned with public image and hangers-on and career moves. Whether he's playing one character Joaquin (clean-shaven, polite) or another (addled, cranky, arrogant), the process is the same. He needs to keep his audience in mind.

This audience -- whoever it is -- matters. But maybe not the way you imagine. The audience is part of the machinery that produces and uses the performance, but it doesn’t need to like it, only wrestle with it. It's a good trick to consider this relationship in a format that appears to be so one-sided, that makes the viewing experience so uncomfortable, as well as funny and perverse (see: Phoenix in Panama, sitting silently with his father, played by Affleck's father).

The question is not whether the new Phoenix or even the movie is a hoax -- all documentaries show performances, selves designed for cameras. The more interesting question has to do with you: do you want to believe the film, and why? Because Phoenix and Affleck have called it a documentary? Because the cameras are handheld and the addresses direct? Because it confirms your sense of the world, that is, that Phoenix's life is an over-determined mess?

This sense has, of course, been set up by a long-form performance that seems to corroborate the damaged celebrity stereotype. The movie helpfully reiterates a series of recent exploits and gives them a context (and so makes them seem less incoherent than they looked the first time you saw them). Phoenix appears to melt down on Letterman and raps-and-fights in Miami's LIV nightclub. After Letterman, Phoenix sits in the dark, his expression mostly vacant and sort of upset, watching the ensuing mockery on his laptop (starting with Ben Stiller at the Oscars). And after LIV, the camera follows him backstage, close on his back until he reaches the men's room, where he throws up -- a lot.

Phoenix's excesses are reinforced repeatedly by his yes-menny friends/assistants, Antony and Larry (as well as Affleck, on and off screen). They're also granted a particular reality when set alongside other stars, like Mos Def (who suggests the rap idea is "epic"), Stiller (who takes a meeting with Phoenix concerning Greenberg), and Olmos (who submits a mystical speech about water drops and consciousness). When JP finally does meet with Diddy (who knows something about self-naming and -performing), the frame rests on Mr. Rap Mogul's astonished face, eyes glazing over while the demo pounds in the background. Phoenix hovers, his sunglasses duct-taped and his affect low, until Puffy announces, "You're not ready to record with me."

In the parking lot, Phoenix acts surprised at Diddy's rejection ("Shit!"). His next act, with Letterman, is peculiar and familiar, as repetition and seeming absence; famously, his collaborator Dave concludes, "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight." But all the acts make the same point, that they are acts, that he's not here and is still here too. "My life is becoming a film about me not wanting to make a film," Phoenix frets. Apparently frustrated, he walks away from the camera more than once, shuts a door on it, runs from a limo to hide in Central Park bushes and cry, "I've fucked my fucking life." Maybe. Or maybe, as I'm Still Here submits, it only looks like that.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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