Documentary maker Penny Lane has two feature films at this year's Open City Documentary Festival; Our Nixon (2013) and The Pain of Others (2018). Our Nixon uses snippets from 500 reels of Super 8 home videos captured by members of President Richard Nixon's administration documenting their time in the White House. The Pain of Others uses YouTube videos created by individuals who believe they are suffering from Morgellons disease; a mysterious, contested disease with many healthcare professionals disbelieving its existence. Both films mix personal footage with news reports giving insight into the lives of the films subjects but also showing the misalignment between the subject's feelings and how they're perceived by outsiders. Lane herself notes the similarity between the two given that both revolve around three people documenting their existence with news reports punctuating personal footage to serve different functions: in Our Nixon they are used to show the way the media was antagonistic towards the Nixon administration whereas in The Pain of Others news reports are used to show the world outside the claustrophobic interiors of the subjects lives.
Our Nixon brilliantly humanises a man we are all familiar with by showing glimpses of the world inside the White House no-one other than the people holding the camera were meant to view. This is perhaps so brilliantly done because as Lane explains, she had no agenda when entering this film-making process but she was confident the tapes would be interesting. In her eyes the footage offered up only one version of a film, that which detailed the lives of the men closest to Nixon which were Chief of Staff Richard Halderman, Domestic Affairs Assistant John Ehrilchman and Special Assistant Dwight Chapin. These were the men holding the camera. The shots are by no means professional but they are aesthetically pleasing capturing their relationship which by all accounts was a loyal, brotherly bond sharing lots of humour. On most of the videos the men are smiling and joking around. This sense of normality Lane says is quite profound in that we discover the people running a country are just as human as you and I, we expect them to be greater, something more than us but as we find in this footage they experience power in a very mundane manner, they have conversations we might have and they pull pranks we might engage in. Lane adds that while this maybe a profound realisation it is also an unsettling one.
This film was initially released in 2013 but it perhaps has more resonance now in 2018 given that the man we all know currently in the White House is himself embroiled in a web of criminality just like, or perhaps worse, than Nixon. It is difficult not to let one's mind draw comparisons between these two administrations when watching the film. Our Nixon shows conversations between Halderman and Nixon discussing his media persona and the exposé of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times and the Washington Post. What is interesting here is that Nixon does not attack the press but rather the person that leaked the papers; a stark contrast to Trump's consistent media bashing and 'fake news' rhetoric. Lane adds that at least Nixon understood what a democracy meant and the role of the media; it is a sad state of affairs she says, that given the option, she would rather Nixon in office than Trump.
We get to see a lot of tenderness in this film between four men deemed criminals working in a very hypo-masculine environment. This tenderness appears mostly within their relationship with each other. The film uses some of the Nixon tapes (these were tapes from recording devices installed by Nixon in the Oval Office to record his conversations with white house officials, staff and family) and at one point Nixon expresses his love and gratitude towards Halderman. One can't help but have empathy or at least a sense of pity for these men. Lane herself said she most related with Enrilchman seeing him as a sort uncle figure she could have a decent conversation with. She felt she couldn't quite convey him fully in the film, she wanted to show more of what he aimed to do politically domestically. Our varying degrees of empathy for other humans is explored to a greater extent in The Pain of Others.
The Pain of Others was actually born out of a book focusing on empathy called the Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Lane, already fascinated with invisible, contested diseases such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia discovered Morgellons disease in this book and was immediately intrigued by it. Soon after she was opened up to an online community of Morgellons sufferers. She downloaded reams of YouTube videos of sufferers examining their disease, self-diagnosing, self-treating, sharing their pain and new discoveries. For those unfamiliar with Morgellons the symptoms most commonly associated with it are crawling sensations under and on the skin, skin sores, sprouting fibres, fatigue and depression. The causes of this disease remain largely unknown.
Lane says that once buried deep in the volume of videos she had downloaded, at one point she had to stop looking because the videos were so depressing particularly those made by one of the subjects Carrie whom was teetering on the edge of suicide. Lane would often be sobbing along with Carrie, relating to her trouble existing. After putting aside the project for a while Lane re-watched the footage she had downloaded and pushed through a barrier to which she felt was an experience of value. She wanted to give her audience this experience too. True to this quest, the film is an uncomfortable watch, not everyone can get through it, there are times one wants to look away because Morgellons is so bewildering and the affects of it on the three subjects featured in the film are both physically and mentally disturbing. Lane confides that she is not a squeamish person but a lot of the footage was "gross" even to her. Some may find the footage in the film gross but Lane attests that there is material a lot worse out there she could have used.
The film centres on three supposed sufferers of Morgellons; Tasha, Marcia and Carrie. Their individual styles of YouTube videos varies with different aims, as Lane affirms, Tasha is interested in being a lifestyle vlogger offering tips on how to cope with Morgellons, Marcia wants to expose the government's involvement and cover up of Morgellons disease and Carrie simply wants to connect with other people. The choice to use these three women seemed down to the wealth of the content they had uploaded to YouTube. With regards to the film just featuring only female sufferers, Lane states that it wasn't necessarily a choice to focus on women but that the disease mostly affects women however she says that this in itself is a sort of choice because she has chosen to focus on a disease afflicted mostly on women. Furthermore Lane says she was particularly drawn to Carrie, she loved her face and her "poetic, hippy" style of speaking. Surprisingly Lane has not met these women and although she has contacted them, she has had little response or interest from them.
The Pain of Others forces us to look at this perplexing, unsettling disease where we both question the subjects and ourselves. One might believe or disbelieve the truth of these women but in doing so we have to reflect on why we feel a certain way towards them. Before coming to the end of making this film Lane had believed the women featured were afflicted mostly by mental health problems, that they had created this illness in their minds but now she is just as unsure as the rest of us. This is easy to understand as one does almost gets sucked into the minds of these women throughout the film, we almost lose our own perspective. Lane tells me that she had not expected this from audiences. She was shocked to discover that friends of hers would tell her that having watched this film they too had begun feeling crawling sensations because of it, in some cases for up to a week after. In this sense the film is reflective of the complexity of this disease and how it is viewed by others.
These two compelling films are not be missed at this year's Open City Documentary Festival. They offer insight, intrigue, they will make you question your own judgments and above all they will make you question your own psyche more than those of the people you are watching on screen for days after. Lane started making documentaries because she has always been interested in stories within stories, well I can guarantee you will leave the cinema just as interested as she is.
Amy Watts and Penny Lane met in London to discuss the films ahead of the Open City Documentary Festival.
Catch OUR NIXON at the Prince Charles Cinema on Saturday 8th September and see the THE PAIN OF OTHERS at the BFI Friday 7th September. Penny Lane will be giving Q&As at both events.