Best of 2023: Jeanie Finlay on The Curse

The acclaimed documentary director, whose new film Your Fat Friend opens in New York City, on her deep love of Nathan Fielder.

I don’t quite understand what compels me to seek out and consume Nathan Fielder’s work – it feels like a perverse impulse when everything he makes seems precision-geared to make audiences as uncomfortable as possible. I feel like Bart Simpson repeatedly grabbing for the cupcake even though it’s proven to give him an electric shock every single time – it’s just an insistent itch I need to scratch.

I’ve watched two episodes of The Curse so far – created and written by Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie, with both of them starring alongside Emma Stone – and it feels like the next step in Fielder’s evolution. The persona he’s playing is a version of him, but it’s a much more outwardly dapper and confident version than we’ve seen in Nathan for You or The Rehearsal. He seems more together, doesn’t have that full, grey Lego hair and is somehow more conventionally attractive than he has been in previous iterations. (Is it the developer swagger and the – at least ostensible – trappings of success or is it easier to play confident in a fictional role? Were all of his previous outings also fictional personas, with their deadpan questions and ingenue enquiries. Would the real Nathan Fielder please stand up?) But still, as before, every interaction and situation feels deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

It’s Unreal, but as seen through a fun-house mirror. The story concerns the shooting of a reality show produced by the troubled and apparently ethics-averse Dougie (Safdie) – a man not beyond physically manufacturing the tears he wants to pull from a contributor’s eyes – about property developers Whitney (Stone) and Asher (Fielder), a married couple of developers currently in the process of gentrifying a poor area with their own line of ecologically sustainable housing. The pair tell themselves that they are working in an ethical way (Mean Girls mom style – “I’m not a regular capitalist, a cool capitalist”) but obviously there is a lot of image-crafting and self-deception going on. There is a disparity between how they want to be seen and who they actually are which means that they keep telling on themselves. And this is prime Nathan Fielder territory.

He is someone who was put on this earth to tell on himself in every way possible, so it’s deeply uncomfortable to watch as things start to spiral. Asher is persuaded (bullied?) by Dougie into doing something that looks altruistic on camera and ends up giving a $100 note to an impoverished, unhoused child. As soon as he thinks the camera stops rolling, he then clutches it out of the girls’ hands and promises to give her a smaller note (“That was just for TV”). This leads to the girl voicing The Curse of the title. All of this is, of course, captured by the nefarious documentarian, who is doing everything possible to craft a storyline, and trying to control a narrative that is wholly uncontrollable.

I definitely think that being a documentary filmmaker opens the door to me understanding and finding Nathan Fielder’s work really appealing. In The Rehearsal, he’s facilitating conversations for people to deal with awkward situations, but it’s more than just getting to look behind the curtain – we see things through a prism of obsession and hubris, and a suggestion of maybe neurodivergence, too. There’s a fascination with trying to control what’s going to happen, with trying to get the right outcome, with making sure that every eventuality which could occur is thought about, planned for. It’s an attempt to make real-life play out exactly how you want it to. But, as every documentarian knows, life won’t always play ball.

Nathan Fielder is a true original; I can’t think of many other people who are making work like him. The Rehearsal just blew my mind. It starts off one way and you think, “Oh, the gimmick is helping others rehearse awkward social interactions,” and then it spirals and grows into a whole world. The elaborateness of it feels akin to making things on film, things that look very simple on screen but took enormous amounts of thinking and construction. And it is deeply enjoyable to watch. It also appeals to me that he persuaded HBO to give him so much money to build a meticulous, enormous facsimile of a pub, inside a warehouse.

I appreciate that these shows only exist because they were an idea that he had, and he followed it through. It’s like, how far will he push it? You can imagine what the limit is, and then he takes it further, and he takes it out the back door, down the end of the yard and through the field out the back. When I’m making a documentary film, I sometimes feel like having a camera in my hand is a gateway to the conversations I wouldn’t be able to have in polite, day-to-day interactions. I feel like Nathan Fielder is doing a version of that, but just in a really expensive, elaborate and obsessive way. I’m into it.

Jeanie Finlay is a British artist and filmmaker who creates intimate, funny and personal documentary films and artworks. Her focus is on creating compelling portraits and is obsessed with telling other people’s stories. Her work is known for its innovative approach to engaging with audiences in meaningful ways. Her documentaries includes Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, Seahorse, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Sound It Out, Goth Cruise and Teenland. Her latest film, Your Fat Friend, is now playing at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema in New York City. (Photo by Jo Irvine.)