What You Do with Intimacy

Documentary director Robert Greene talks about dabbling in fiction to get at greater truths

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Yesterday the Gotham Award nominations were announced. Arguably one of the biggest surprises was Actress receiving a Best Documentary nod. The film, directed by Robert Greene, focuses on the journey of Greene’s real-life neighbor Brandy Burre, a former actress who, after such roles as Theresa D’Agostino on The Wire, left the business to start a family. Actress chronicles Burre’s breaking free of her domestic life and jumping back into the game. Yet, the audience is left to wonder: How far will Burre go to re-invent her life and pursue her artistry?

With the film still in the final days of its Seed and Spark campaign, Paste had a chance to talk with Greene about the project and what it takes to raise awareness for a film pushing through the final leg of post-production.

The Cinema Guild is set to release Actress November 7th in theaters.

Paste: Making a film about film is always tricky. What sets Actress apart?
Robert Greene: The film isn’t necessarily about film in a traditional way—the movie is no Day For Night. It is, however, about performance and how the roles we play can trap us in our lives. The movie becomes, then, about how Brandy [Burre] performs “Herself” in this documentary about an unexpectedly traumatic year that she went through. In my mind, though, all documentaries are inherently self-reflexive in that audiences view them as attempts to construct reality. Actress just happens to be an especially aware version of that.

Paste: Burre is a close friend. Was it advantageous to make a doc about someone you knew?
Greene: I almost didn’t want to make the film because my previous two documentary features were made about people very close to me and I was hesitant to do it again, but not for the reasons you might think. My second feature, Kati with an I, was about my half-sister, and my third, Fake It So Real, featured my cousin. I was hesitant simply because I feared the perception that I was only capable of making films about close friends or family.

But in the end, I think the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. First, this is a film that I could actually get made with little upfront resources. Second, the intimacy leads us somewhere. I reject the idea that you need objective distance from your subject. The question is: What do you do with the intimacy?

Paste: Domesticity vs. creativity: this is something the film centers upon and many artists can relate to. How does the film explore that conflict?
Greene: Brandy was very happy to make the choice to leave the acting business to raise a family. When she made this choice, she expected to maintain her creative energy and her free spirit, if you will. But like many of us, she eventually found domestic life to be unsatisfying for her artistic side. Taking care of children and playing the role of housewife can be perfectly satisfying—until it isn’t. When that happens, what do you do? Actress chronicles what Brandy did.

Paste: Many documentaries encompass a sense of education or activism; does Actress as well?
Greene: Actress is not what you would call a “social issue” film, but I think all films are educational in one way or another. For me, foregrounding the “message” does little to educate or awaken or stir the viewer. In Actress, we rely on more fiction-like devices and we try to really push the story and the form into uncharted territory. I think this is what documentary art can do: to shake us and to show us aspects of someone’s reality so we can learn a little more about the broader human situation through a radically specific focus. So, in a sense, the film is quite political. It is, in fact, always political when a woman takes center stage and says what she really thinks.

Paste: You’re immersed in many aspects of indie film. You edited Listen Up Phillip, in which Burre has a role, too! What can people outside of your immediate team do to most encourage and cultivate a film like this?
Greene: The film was made for very little money upfront and we took many risks, some of which must have paid off or we wouldn’t have gotten a Gotham Awards nomination or distribution through such a great distributor in The Cinema Guild. In the end we decided to try to raise the money via Seed & Spark to pay for the music that we wanted in the film because we felt that the vision was worth it—that we shouldn’t give up fighting for our film just because we had little cash. If you want to see documentaries and art films that push boundaries and shine a light on unexpected, “smaller” stories, you can support films like ours that have scraped and clawed our way to the world. We’d really appreciate it!

To check out the campaign, visit the Seed & Spark site.