Jeff Reichert is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and critic based in Brooklyn.
At times, Maíra Bühler and Matias Mariani’s new documentary I Touched All Your Stuff feels akin to 90 minutes spent idly poking around on one’s laptop. In their retelling of the story of nebbishy American computer programmer Chris Kirk – who found himself imprisoned in São Paulo on drug trafficking charges after a whirlwind, years-long love affair with a mysterious women referred to only as “V,” met while on a sabbatical in Colombia – the filmmakers make regular use of a familiar, highly un-cinematic image, employed with a regularity that suggests the refrain of a pop song: the file structure of a desktop computer. After meeting and becoming intrigued by Kirk in jail while developing a project about foreign inmates in Brazil, Bühler and Mariani earned his confidence and were sent by Kirk to his home in Olympia in search of an 80-gigabyte hard drive filled with photos, videos, music, documents, and other digital ephemera. The pair recorded the screen image of their rifling through his files, so much of the film is comprised of watching cursors mousing around while listening to double-clicks to open photos and videos, or the clack of arrow keys scrolling through endless lists of files. Sometimes the action consists solely of opening and playing a piece of music to cheekily underscore a sequence (Joseph Arthur’s “Prison,” most notably).
The paradox inherent here, certainly not lost on the filmmakers, is that even though Kirk extensively documented his life leading up to his incarceration, and the evidence of this is exhaustive, machine-numbered and archived, there’s nothing in all this material (at least that the filmmakers allow us to see) that suggests “truth.” This is important, as it’s clear from the outset of the film that Chris Kirk is a liar. There’s something “off” about him almost immediately, something practiced about his posture and delivery during the movie’s main interview with him, wearing his yellow prison jumpsuit, framed head-on at a desk with a blackboard behind. With his poorly shaven bald pate, wiry brows, and skinny, hairy arms poking out of his oversized short sleeves, he looks every bit the lonely nerd the story he relates to us suggests, but as he tells the tale of his affair with V., and as the filmmakers introduce into the mix more perspectives that aren’t Kirk’s, I Touched All Your Stuff grows increasingly murky. It isn’t long before the filmmakers themselves wonder aloud about Kirk’s “distance from himself,” as though he’s playing the “main character in his own story.”
As that story unfolds, we also see chat windows with conversations between Kirk and V., her friends, and other lovers typed out as if happening in real time; the filmmakers’ glitchy, lo-res Skype interviews with members of Kirk’s friend circle and family; occasional YouTube clips; and footage lifted from a stop-motion Pinocchio animation. This cobbling together of elements gives I Touched All Your Stuff the feel of a scrapbook. From what we do see of the assembled videos and photos, featuring plenty of smiling friends, it seems as though Chris Kirk led a decent life. But as interviews with those friends and his family attest, a normal everyday existence wasn’t for him. He experienced a run-in with minor celebrity a few years prior to his exploits with V. when he returned home to his apartment to find that a houseguest had wrapped his entire place in thousands of feet of aluminum foil, making Kirk a nightly news item for a few days (a Post-It left behind read: “I Touched All Your Stuff”). That Kirk, sporting a Dr. Morbius goatee and black turtleneck, and oddly poised in front of a camera, seems more like a fellow who might find himself happy to be seduced and knowingly hoodwinked into a seedier life by a beautiful South American drug mule he met one night at a bar. Was the aluminum foil incident a kind of catalyst? Like so much about Chris Kirk, it seems it’s impossible to know for sure.
We never really see V., except in a blurry photo (Kirk, in a weak stab at the poetic, suggests this dimly viewed glimpse is perhaps the most apt record of her), or a bit of her chin in an iPhone video, and a few sketches. We’re also withheld from knowing more about her as, for reasons never disclosed (presumably of a legal nature), she doesn’t participate in the film. This is unfortunate because, as we track the progression of her relationship with Kirk and he learns more about her, her “work” and her other lovers, and begins reaching out to them, I Touched All Your Stuff takes on an uncomfortable masculine prurience, with the men in V.’s life taking to chat rooms and discussing her appearance, the things she’s good at, or what she regularly exclaims during sex.
Unlike some recent American docs, such as Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, that seem in thrall to that lumbering series of manufactured reveals that was Capturing the Friedmans (a regrettably influential film whose fake stabs at moral ambiguity completely misread Errol Morris), I Touched All Your Stuff is never interested in pulling the rug out from under us at regular intervals. We know what we’re hearing is riddled with lies, just as we know Kirk will likely never reveal what’s true and what isn’t. Bühler and Mariani could be read as wily in their intent to let Kirk slowly hang himself with his words, but can we not also detect some naïveté? Should filmmakers push their subjects harder, especially when it’s clear there’s more afoot than is being shared for the camera? Is letting Kirk just tell his story acceptable?
Though Kirk is a terrific storyteller, he’s a god-awful writer. Throughout I Touched All Your Stuff, we hear in voiceover sections of his musings, which devolve into rants about his “sublimated feelings of impotence and frustration,” and long sections detailing his clichéd desire for adventure and escape from small-town life. He didn’t just see fireworks in Bogotá, they hit him “in the chest like an unexpected divorce.” There’s some braggadocio in his musing that his story is “maybe too much for a film,” but there’s also unplanned poignancy. Though many of us might relate to that wish, that desire to live a life suited to big-screen glory, to do so is to forget that life on-screen is always necessarily a compression rather than an expansion. Adventures come in all sizes, and from the masses of photos and videos on display in I Touched All Your Stuff, it seems that even before he became the lover of a beautiful mixed-race South American siren and then a wanted drug smuggler, Chris Kirk was living one. Sadly for him, the allure of the great story led him to believe otherwise.