A film which”scrutinizes in rigorous and striking detail elements of everyday life, and transforms them into powerful reflections of modern human existence,” that is how Emma Norton describes What is Love, director Ruth Mader’s new documentary which provides an intimate look into the lives of five ordinary people.
‘What is Love’ is about as far away as you can get from your average documentary film, rather it plays out something like a series of photographic portraits. There are no interviews, no live-action drama, no archive material, no voiceover, and no shaky camerawork.
Indeed, this documentary is meticulously filmed, consisting of scenes that were set up to tell an individuals’ story, to reflect the essence of their everyday lives over a ten to fifteen minute period.
This may lead you to question how this film can be a ‘documentary’ if it is made of up carefully crafted scenes intended to recreate a person’s life. How can this film retain authenticity if nothing is happening in the here and now? Something in Mader’s approach finds a way.
In a Q&A after the film’s first screening at the BFI London Film Festival earlier this week, Mader stated that the film relied upon “finding people who were good for the film and who really wanted to participate… What I demanded of them was a willingness to permit an authentic look at their lives. And they read the screenplay beforehand. Each scene was planned out and they knew what to expect.”
Though her approach to documenting reality is in a sense manufactured, everything Mader presents to the audience feels startlingly personal. In fact, what the filmmakers have achieved is so intimate, it is actually difficult to remember that the individuals she documents are not actors. These are real people; these are their real homes, their real families, and their real issues.
‘What is Love’ is thought provoking. Though I can’t say that it lived up to its title in making me think about the nature of love. My thoughts were more preoccupied with how the film was made, how striking it is as a piece of visual art, and how peculiar the lives of even ordinary people can be when placed before a lens.