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Artists in their own words: Robert Greene


Robert Greene (Photo by: Ray Pride)

Who: Robert Greene

What: Filmmaker

Where: Columbia, Missouri

Connection to New Orleans: In addition to the fact that he’s, “never had a bad night in New Orleans,” Robert Greene’s film Kate Plays Christine will be screening for True Orleans Film Fest at the Broad Theater on Friday, September 9.


Q: What is the most private state a person can get into?

A: I would have to say masturbation. That’s when you’re by yourself and having whatever real fantasies that excite you, and you’re completely doing your own thing. You don’t expect anyone to be around in that moment, and you only have one goal in mind during that time. You do whatever it takes to reach that goal.

The thoughts that may be going through your mind could be really important to your sanity and well-being, but you wouldn’t necessarily admit them or express them out loud.  

I’m actually about 30% joking about masturbation being the most private state, and this does provide a good way of looking at documentary filmmaking. What you’re looking at when you’re making a documentary is not someone’s most private state. You’re actually capturing what they’re giving to you, and that can be considered a performance. It’s not necessarily a performance in the typical sense where you’re in absolute control of what you’re doing or you’re an ‘actor’ in a direct way.

A camera can see through things, but whenever a camera is present I don’t think we can usually allow ourselves to be at our most vulnerable. The exception to that--and there are many exceptions--is when someone is under extreme trauma or duress. There are documentaries that have footage of those moments, and they almost always make us very uncomfortable. We’re generally more comfortable watching something when we know there’s a little bit of a give-and-take between person and camera.

We love to fetishize the idea of authenticity, and I understand why we do that. We live in a world of fake things, and it’s exhausting. We want documentaries to be those unvarnished authentic moments.

But I think the reality is that we are capturing something that is being displayed and being presented, and that doesn’t make it any less authentic. The display that people are putting on does reveal its own truth and a depth of behavioral truth, even if what people conceive of it isn’t really happening on screen.

Q: What makes you decide to stay in a place for a long time?

A: I have a weird relationship to staying in one place. I grew up moving around a lot. I went to about fifteen different schools between kindergarten and seventh grade, so staying in one place was always something I hungered for. I was also suspicious of it. Even after I grew up, I would get restless and have this feeling of ‘I have to go. I have to move.’

When I moved to New York, though, it was different. I’m a kid from the country, but my brain and my internal rhythms matched the city in a way that felt really direct.

Meanwhile, my wife grew up in the Seattle area, and I can see that when she goes back to the Northwest she is so incredibly peaceful. She smells the air, and she feels happier and freer. It seems that we have places that are naturally locked into who we are in ways we cannot describe. There must be some kind of internal/external thing going on there.

Q: When do you think reason is not important?

A: Reason is always only partly important, I would say. Instinct and things on the level of pheromones are important in ways that we have to trust sometimes. You fall in love with someone for reasons you can’t explain, and many times, logic or reason has very little to do with it. Often, that gets us in trouble when we aren’t reasonable when it comes to things like love.

We have other aspects of ourselves that are not our brain and that are really important. Chemicals, pheromones, and our gut are all important. Our life experiences have built safety alarms in us that we can’t really articulate, but we know when they start going off. You have to trust all of that as much as you have to trust your brain.

This definitely came up when making Kate Plays Christine. The film deals with suicide, and I often find that people try to make a story or reason a story out of why a person might have done what they did. Sometimes we have to let go of that and adjust to the unknown and the inability to understand something.

Sometimes it’s a matter of following what’s inside of you, and other times it’s about saying, ‘I can’t reason myself to an answer. I have to actually accept that something is beyond my grasp.’

Q: What would a non-human civilization connect with in your work?

A: Well, I would say that my films are ultimately about behavior. I’d say that how the camera elevates aspects of behavior would be a central factor. So, [laughing] even an alien watching the films could get a sense of that exchange.

I think about what a documentary is, and I think it is an attempt to capture something real that happened or something that is currently happening in the real world. It’s an attempt because it’s always fabricated, structured, or edited in a particular way. But, that instinct to want to capture something real is very human. It is also, of course, deeply flawed, but we as humans are deeply flawed.

So maybe an alien could see that in the films and think, ‘Oh, I can tell why humans are so fucked up,’ but they would also see that humans are deeply interested in empathy and understanding other people.

I guess the mixture of humans being messed-up and also having this desire to connect would hopefully come through in my movies.

Q: How do you know when to speak up?

A: The problem for me is usually knowing when not to speak up [laughs], but if I were teaching my kids when to speak up or not speak up, that would be a different situation. I think it relates to that reason factor. There’s a tripwire inside of us that tells us what’s right and wrong, and we instill that in our children. Society also instills that in us, and I think there’s also this natural ability for most people to know what’s right and wrong. There are exceptions, of course.

If you trip that, you know it. If you don’t say something and you want to, it will eat you from the inside.

I feel like my daughter feels that. She’s the more likely of my two kids to speak up, and she cannot pass a homeless person without doing or saying something. As we grow up, we learn these defenses against that kid-like feeling of doing the right thing and being good. We grow up, we get more cynical, and we trick ourselves into having less absolute ideas of right and wrong. We talk about how the issue is ‘complex’ or how we are in a hurry, and we move on.

My daughter cannot stop from talking to people and trying to help people.

As adults we really need to get back to that naive feeling of what is right and wrong. When you get back there you can maybe know better when to speak up and when to help people.
Robert Greene is a writer as well as a documentary filmmaker and editor. His film Kate Plays Christine, which centers around an actress preparing to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a real-life news reporter who committed suicide on national television, will be the opening night film for the True Orleans Film Festival. The screening will take place at The Broad Theater (636 N. Broad) on Friday, September 9 at 7:00 P.M. and Robert will be there for a post-screening Q&A. You can check out more of Robert’s work here and find a full True Orleans program on Shotgun Cinema’s website.