Performance and documentary in Lovetrue

Alma Har’el’s second feature length documentary Lovetrue, following her breakthrough success at Tribeca in 2011 with Bombay Beach, is a moving portrait of Americana which wears its heart on its sleeve. It is easy to forget that Lovetrue is only Har’el’s sophomore effort in feature documentary work due to her mastery in creating mood and tension in the representation of her characters, her keen eye for emotive visuals and unique and delicate mix of documentary and fiction. The diverse characters that Har’el has filled her film with, and the intimate recording of conversations, thoughts and memories create a rich tapestry of emotion and a yearning for self-discovery. Indeed, Har’el has created a film that demonstrates the best of what creative and unconventional documentary cinema can achieve, and pairs that with a powerful visual aesthetic and memorable soundtrack by Flying Lotus. In her mix of documentary and fiction, Har’el sets herself apart from other filmmakers for all the right reasons: she has produced a film that is intensely intricate and watchable, and one that questions the audiences as well as her characters' reality and existence.  

The idea of performance in documentary may be perceived as a contradiction, and yet performance is inherently linked to the form. What do we watch on our laptops, smartphones, televisions and the screens at our cinemas that is not performance? Where there is a camera, there is performance. Even the newsreader delivers her lines in a performative way and the inclinations of her voice inform us of her opinion; much more so than her austere body language and formal appearance. When performance is considered in the context of fictional film, it can be assessed as either good or bad in relation to the accurate understanding and representation of fictional characters or ideas; when it is considered in the context of documentary, performance is most commonly linked to re-construction or dramatisation of events or people, and more naively perceived as something that is false, fabricated or embellished. It is arguable that performance in documentary occupies a more complex meaning and purpose than first meets the eye, and the audience may find that many documentary films which feature aspects of performance present more genuinely authentic representations than documentaries that don’t. When considering the authenticity of a representation, is it not also worthwhile considering the effect that the representation provokes, rather than simply how authentic that representation is, and in what form that representation is conveyed?  


Lovetrue features multiple interpretations of performance; from traditional reconstruction scenes, to the symbolic inclusion of older-self versions of two main protagonists, as well as other meditative scenes which have been fabricated to elaborate on an idea or theme. Har’el seems self-conscious of the performativity that she has included in her film and the masks of drama and comedy that she mixes with documentary reality. As a device, performance allows her to focus on symbolic issues that address her character's subconscious and identity, and which assist Har’el in illustrating her own interpretation of her characters.

Within her kaleidoscopic representation of these ideas exists a unique portrayal. These people, masks on or off, act as representations of a broader cohort, and within this representation, examples of both universal and specific defining characteristics are evident, in effect giving a licence to Har’el’s use of fiction within the film to elaborate on ideas of alienation, poverty, undue responsibility and future shortsightedness which might have been lost in the more intimate details of her individual characters’ lives. Har’el’s inclusion of performance, re-construction and fabricated situations produce the dream-like perception of her characters that the film needs to work for large audiences, and to matter to the individual.


The three protagonists of Lovetrue all exhibit performative aspects within their lives that have existed outside of the film's remit or history: Will Hunt (a.k.a Coconut Willie) is a surfer, Blake Gurtler a strip club dancer and Victory Boyd a musician and singer. These performances act as diegetic stimulation to the narrative and often act as a catalyst for ensuing fabricated scenes, such as when Hunt is surfing and the scene concludes in a dreamlike underwater fight with a man he dislikes, or when Gutler dances alongside her older self. Throughout the film Har’el takes her performance one step further, by including the three protagonists within the reconstructions, and alternatively the actors from the reconstructions in non-reconstruction scenes, which produces a further surreal effect and adds to the dream like essence of the film. This multi-layered and complex approach to performance within Lovetrue demonstrates an awareness of performance within the documentary, and the poetic effects it can achieve.


Questions of performance aside, within Lovetrue lies a whirlpool of emotion and imagery which is hallucinatory and thought-provoking in its purpose, yet elusive in its connectivity and resolution. Its elusiveness is perhaps its strongest gift to audiences, shining through in the film’s portrayal of its main protagonists: three wandering youths who exist, and find existence from, circumstances which are seemingly out of their control. This theme perpetuates a motif that has featured throughout Alma Har’el’s documentary work and which reflects the ever present disenfranchised generation of young and struggling individuals. On the surface, the film assumes the image of a shiny and hip documentary, but dig a little deeper and what is encountered is something much more stimulating and rewarding and that transcends expectations. Har’el’s use of performance in Lovetrue is ultimately a side note to the stunning film she has made, but which also sets her apart from others in a unique and exciting way. Her previous film, Bombay Beach, is described on Har’el’s website as an “unadulterated portrait of the human spirit,” and it is without a doubt that Lovetrue follows in its footsteps. Her ability to portray individuals and the intimate struggles they face in their daily lives is a triumph, and the care she has taken in elaborating on her characters' ideas and stories is at the same time humanist and creatively stimulating, proving her strong connection to both the subject and the documentary form she uses so well. In a final scene full of flashbacks and archive footage, the voiceover of a young boy remarks, “faith, hope and love… the greatest of these is love” - Har’el’s love of her characters and the world she has created for them shines through in the mix of documentary and fiction that she achieves in this revealing and tender film, and demonstrates why it’s so easy to fall in love with Lovetrue.

[By Sean Parnell, Curzon Aldgate.]

Lovetrue plays at Curzon Soho this weekend and it's available on Curzon Home Cinema at the same time as in cinemas.