[rating: 2/4]

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.

Written and Directed by: David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
Starring: Charles Fihoil
Rated: Unrated
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.

About The Author

Emma Johnson is a Blast Magazine critic whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe

5 Responses

  1. John Tilly

    I watched the same film, but I wasn’t laughing “at” Charles, as it seems you are laughing at him (nor did I see the film as an “epic;” it was a simple three act structure). Anyway, I’m laughing at the absurd truths he reveals about myself. Stop being so PC – it’s fine to laugh with someone who is mentally ill. It seems you’re too sensitive and simply have different standards than the filmmakers. And who cares if they had a car! How’s that any different than a microphone? They biked the majority of the way with Charles, according to the Q&A. Your self-righteous indignation (“Because they wanted him to bike the whole way”) is troublesome. Perhaps you should acknowledge Charles’s decision to ride his bike instead of assume he’s a poor victim. Give the man some credit and stop pitying him! After all, it seems to me that he can take care of himself and he certainly doesn’t need the filmmakers to help him out! The story is about a man riding his bicycle – not hitching a ride with the directors. You sure do like to read into details with dogmatic truths, huh? Perhaps that’s why you don’t write reviews often – you approach movies with middle class purities. It’s a story, not a psychiatric analysis.

  2. Charles Filhiol

    Where to begin…I guess first I should mention that I am Charles Filhiol, the “agent provocateur” of the film. Now where else should I go? Perhaps it’s best to start at the end. That’s where you dismiss my life as “damaged”, based on me not giving in to my child’s attempted manipulation of events by his throwing of a temper-tantrum. Do you have kids? How dare you call my life or my relationship with my children a “tragedy”, lady? Do you know me? Do you know my kids? You would make such a judgment off of ten seconds in a 70-minute film? Give me a break. You totally missed that whole scene if that’s all you took away from it.

    Next up is some sort of vain, baseless conclusion you made off of one flippant, off-hand remark by one of the directors at a Q&A session. Let me tell you. I wanted for NOTHING on the road that they were not prepared to immediately offer had I asked. Ask yourself, why would I want to ride in the car when the WHOLE point was to ride my bicycle to New Orleans? What were we supposed to do, ride around in circles until I felt better? Had they said, “Yes, he got tired so we skipped 100 miles and then he started again”, you would be the FIRST to call shenanigans. I, me, Charles Filhiol, am the one who INSISTED that the whole trip be biked by me, so I could tell people like you, “YES, WE DID!” and we did. Meanwhile, David and Ashley went out of their way to make me comfortable, as I did them when we were at my house and in my “small rural town in the apocalypse” or how ever you put it. You are truly blind to your own condescension, aren’t you, Ms. “Big-city-dweller”?

    Anyway, this whole talk of “severely mentally ill”…who is doing the insulting, lady? Neither David nor Ashley has ever insulted me by calling me that. The whole premise of “schizophrenia” is drawn from one line in the film; a line where my mother misstates my diagnosis; a line left in the film as a tool for the audience to use in drawing their own conclusions, invisible girlfriend or no. Furthermore, it is YOU who insults me again with your “randomly begins to ramble about Jonie” statement. Where was that in the film? Where did I “ramble” unless it was an overdub voice-track?

    Sheesh…I could go on-and-on…but really, though, throughout this whole experience I know that some get it and some don’t, and your review is a great example of a “don’t”. The really sad part is that you will always be a “don’t”. Far from you ever needing to pity me, it is I who pity you. I mean that truthfully and sincerely. I can only pray that some day you will answer the call to awaken…but perhaps your sleep is just too deep. Oh, and PS, there are billions of people on this planet that “talk to statues”. That inference you accidentally made is so convoluted that I dare not try to respond, there’s not enough room on the page. Couldn’t you see that she is much more to me than a statue? I guess not, considering what else I’ve read here…and yes, I’m just as guilty of condescension from judging you over six paragraphs of pixels as you are from judging me over 70 minutes of film. I guess we’ll both just have to deal with it.

  3. John Blanton

    I know Charles personally, and this disgraceful slam of a review should be called much worse. You sure as hell don’t know him and you go as far to insult every Catholic on earth. I think you’re too stupid to figure that out for yourself before you let that comment be posted to this website. You try too damn hard to come off being smart and pc but it comes off as being pathetically stupid. You can’t take the movie at face value, instead you play the role of psychiatrist or psychologist. I can already tell you’re working the wrong avocation. Who are you to say that his life is a tragedy? Who are you really? It’s too bad that you actually write reviews for a living, you’re not even good at it. This review would suck even if it were truthful. I hope this comment pisses you off as much as your review did me.

  4. Dominic T.

    I just watched this documentary thanks to The Documentary Channel and was instantly captivated with Charles’ story, so much so that I had to find out more and was searching the net for a follow-up or news on Charles and what he’s up to now. I was indifferent to your “review” of the film and Charles, but what made me post a reply was Charles own response… it is extremely well written, reasoned, and thought out and if anything shows just how wrong you were and how so often people write others off at any sign of difference or individuality. People don’t have to conform to nice, neat, pretty boxes and sometimes that presents a challenge to others, which, in turn, becomes somehow *their* problem and it isn’t. This man is playing the hand he was dealt and I think in an excellent way, far better than being some pharmaceutical zombie for the rest of his life. I hope all is well Charles, and keep on keepin’ on. So sorry for your loss.

    • Anonymous

      I am, Dominic, keepin’ on and keepin’ on. Thanks for understanding. I hope that you see my reply and know that I am alive and well, and in fact, tough to kill. With Joan of Arc beside me, who could possibly stand against me? Peace, brother.


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