kati with an i a beautiful cinema verite doc in competition for the Oxford American Best Southern Film Award
I knew kati with an i was a documentary when we programmed it, but I subconsciously miss categorized it as a fictional narrative film in our first schedule. Director Robert Greene says this has happened before. My mistake is a testament to what is most successful and rare about this film–it is a documentary with the beauty, power, character and emotion of a scripted work. The filmmaker disappears from the story never to be acknowledged, and the characters, like actors, seem to not even know the camera is present. This style of documentary filmmaking requires incredible patience and trust of the characters and the action that unfolds, un-directed in front of the camera. These days true verite films are mostly absent from American television and theatrical screens. It was not always this way, The Maysles Brothers, DA Pennebaker, Frederick Wisman, and Richard Leacock became famous making non-fiction films in the 60’s and 70’s devoid of sit down interviews, voiceovers, and on camera commentators; and utilizing hand held cameras and natural lighting, in order to bring a more intimate and authentic story to the viewer. We are always looking for films like kati and I to showcase at the LRFF, because we understand that the pure simple stories that make it onto screen in this kind of work, often require the most skill to produce well.
I spoke with Director Robert Greene about casting his half-sister in a documentary, shooting in the South, and the filmmakers who influenced him.
Tell me about Kati with An I. Who is Kati, and why did you decide to make a film about her?
Kati Genthner is my half-sister. We did not grow up together, but she was always my favorite subject – for short student films, camera tests, you name it. While watching another documentary, I had the idea to go down to Alabama and film her graduation. So I called my good friend, the great cinematographer Sean Price Williams, and pitched him the idea. He had also filmed Kati over the years and was very interested. Minutes later, amazingly, I got a call from Kati asking me to come film the ceremony. Without knowing much about how troubled her situation was, I told her my idea to turn her last days of high school into a film. She was excited and we went for it, never sure if the project would become a movie or end up a very fancy graduation present.
One thing I love about his kati with an i is that it doesnt “feel” like a documentary, the characters could almost be actors in a narrative fiction film. Was this a conscious decision in how you approached the film?
Well, I think it was a very conscious decision in that films that “feel” like documentaries are not always the most cinematic or organic and we really wanted KATI to give audiences a glimpse of what it was actually like to be with Kati on those fateful, tumultuous days. We didn’t want anything to stand in the way of that experience, so it does feel more narrative, I think. Kati’s presence in the film has even been described as a “great performance,” which is funny and revealing. I’m always happy when people see the film and say they got lost in it like they were watching a fiction film. But the best “cinema verité” films of Fred Wiseman and the Maysles, among others, were always trying to be movies first and “documents” second, so I like to think we’re just working in that tradition.
Your characters in the film seem completely at ease with the camera, in fact they seem to barely notice it all. This is one of those rare documentaries where it feels like the people involved would pretty much be acting the same way and doing the same things whether you were there at all. How did you accomplish this?
The simplest answer is that Kati knew Sean and it was often just the two of them – or Kati, Sean and one or two other people. They were often in very small places together and Sean has a way of sort of “disappearing.” But I also think the people in the film are performing to some extent. Young people are so comfortable filming themselves that their performance and their “private, real selves” are so tightly wound together that you can’t separate them. When you linger on them with a camera for a while, you start to see this – which is definitely one of the things we were after in the film. But as the days get more dramatic for Kati, a lot of stuff is stripped away and we’re really just there while she deals with some heavy things that are rushing past her. We vanished into the background because she had a lot more important things to deal with.
The film feels very Southern, though I guess it could have been set in any number of small communities in the US. Are you from the South? Why did you choose to make a film there?
I am very proudly from the South. I was born and mostly raised in North Carolina, went to high school and college there, and didn’t step foot in New York until I moved here 10 years ago. My followup to KATI is a film called FAKE IT SO REAL, which is playing on the festival circuit now and is also set in the South, so I think it’s just what I’m comfortable with and what I find most interesting. It goes without saying that most depictions of southern life are riddled with stereotypes and cliché’s, so maybe I want to fight that a little. I also think there are aspects to living and being in the South that are never shown in films, never felt or seen by “outsiders.” “The South” is a pretty giant thing- so many different types of people and types of places. But I take great pride in trying to reveal a little more about what I know is true and intriguing about the region and its people. Having said that, the greatest compliments I’ve gotten have been when people who are not from the South talk about how universal the film is and how it transports them back to their own awkward high school days, no matter where they’re from.