The New Subjectivity: When We Were Boys

Sarah Goodman's WHEN WE WERE BOYS is a direct cinema documentary (trailer) about prep school kids at Toronto’s Royal St. George’s College. It is a lovely, subtle film that gently explores the nature of class, character and exceptionalism, eschewing generalized commentary in favor of simple, probing and clear-eyed observation. While there is nothing exceedingly groundbreaking about Goodman's conclusions about the richest of the rich, the whole project is one of humanization. One can't help but think of the poor masters of industry-to-be with some genuine sympathy, which is a feat in itself.

But the film is most interesting to me, maybe, because of how its structure relates to the ongoing and tedious discussion of objectivity vs. subjectivity in documentary film.

Sarah and I were both at True/False 2010 (I was there with my portrait of youth, KATI WITH AN I) and we met as panelists discussing the relationship between subject and filmmaker. Inevitably, the question of "objectivity" came from the audience. Each of us did our best to bat it down, declaring, I think, that "objectivity in documentary is dead," or something to that effect, and adding that, "Every time we point the camera in a particular direction versus another, it makes the film not objective." This, of course, should be obvious.

Only after watching her film did I understand more fully her take on the issue.
As a woman making a film about boys, Sarah has faced some silly criticisms about the authenticity of her observations (this supposed "objectivity"). I don't really care how the images were collected or what lengths she went to to keep things natural. Maybe it's my bias as an editor, but the film answers the question of objectivity in a far more interesting way: with its form and structure.

In the first minutes of the film, after an opening scene and a particularly bravura credits sequence, one can't shake the feeling that the filmmaker was unsure of her story, unsure of what "meaning" would arise from the chaos of her observations, what characters would carry the narrative, what would resonate. Instead of hiding this uncertainty, the film revels in it. (Appropriately, perhaps, the first scene shows a blindfolded boy walking down a twisting staircase.) As the camera slowly begins to focus on the main characters, the viewer finds his own way with the film. This creates a snowball effect of gathering meaning and gathering purpose, until the film ends on a series of close-ups, two boys alone in a room.

What we have then, is an unmistakably subjective experience. As the filmmaker finds the soul of her film, we do to. And it all comes packaged in a canny series of conversations, distanced and cool, lingering, fragmentary and sharp. In other words, the filmmaker has removed herself by allowing the camera to search a room or a face for evidence of a story, without imposing a simplistic narrative later in the editing room. We see the searching. The movie reflects fully her radically particular experience.

(On a side note, the use of poppy music throughout has the strong effect of giving the viewer insight into why the film was made in the first place. These boys seem to trigger the grand emotions of nostalgia, of lost innocence, of bold, sad youth in the filmmaker. The soaring soundtrack gets us in her head. Filmmaker Peter Wintonick has fittingly called the film "pop vérité" and Sarah has talked about the pop-infused film Rushmore as a major influence.)

Maybe this is a new kind of subjectivity. Maybe a basic education on the way images and film structure operate would help more viewers understand this type of "personal" filmmaking. But of course, there is nothing new about this at all. While critics and textbooks were describing Frederick Wiseman's and the Maysles' work as cinema vérité, they were already arguing against the notion of objectivity, with Wiseman rejecting the term "documentary" entirely for his preferred label of "reality fictions." Yet still, forty years later, his films get bogged down with this pointless discussion.

Let's let this whole thing die for god's sake. Objectivity, we hardly knew ye.

When We Were Boys made it's U.S. debut as True/False 2010. A DVD comes out in June. Sign up for the mailing list here to receive updates.