SOMERVILLE – It is always a question in documentary about how the camera effects its subject- how do documentary filmmakers consciously or unconsciously affect the film they are making, and hence the truth they are trying to tell?
This question kept ringing in my head while watching the screening of “Invisible Girlfriend,” a documentary about a man with schizophrenia named Charles who believes he’s dating Joan of Arc. The two filmmakers follow Charles as he bikes 400 miles from his home in a small town in Louisiana to New Orleans. Ostensibly, he’s going to see the statue of Joan of Arc that stands in that town; truly, he’s going to a woman he really loves: a real woman named DeeDee who works in a bar in the French Quarter.
It’s a great story to be sure. Charles bikes through the almost apocalyptic scenes of rural Louisiana, meeting odd yet familiar people who give him kindness, food or a place to stay. Charles is fascinating: he’s usually calm, well-spoken, intelligent, but randomly begins to ramble about “Joanie” or suspect the filmmakers are sabotaging his bicycle.
Starring: Charles Fihoil
Seen at: Somerville Theater, Davis Square
But as Charles’ odyssey progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable with what I was watching. Many of the scenes are played for laughs (indeed, Charles can be very funny). But when the audience laughs — when we are made to laugh — it means we are laughing at a man who is severely mentally ill. He’s a man with three children who talks to statues. A man who believes people are sabotaging him. Actually, it may be a question as to how the filmmakers are manipulating his situation: at a question and answer session after the screening, director Ashley Sabin said that she and her co-director David Redmon biked most of the way, though they also had a car in case of emergencies. When asked whether Charles ever asked to use the car, Sabin said he did, but that they wouldn’t let him.
I’ll repeat that. They wouldn’t let him use the car when he got tired and didn’t want to keep driving his beach cruiser bicycle 400 miles to New Orleans. Because they wanted him to bike the whole way. Because it made a better movie. I can accept playing with color, chronology, sense of place and time in a documentary. All these things are par for the course. But I have a real problem knowing that these two manipulated a man not in his right mind to make what they believed was a better film.
Moral questions aside, there are other problems with the film, including playing with the speed and color of the film to make the experience more “intense” (in reality it just looks a little pretentious). But there are also little nuggets of truth that almost redeems what we’re watching. For example, we see a terrible moment when Charles leaves his weeping son at the start of his journey with no discernible remorse for what he’s doing. When he shrugs at the camera while his young son wails in the background, we see what Charles’ life is really like behind the veil of wanderlust and quirkiness: he’s a damaged man who has responsibilities that he simply is not capable of meeting. Charles’ life is a tragedy. But that doesn’t make it an epic.