Kelly Reichardt and Humanism as a Political Statement

The Levelling writer-director Hope Dickson Leach on Certain Women and the compassionate approach of her former professor.

For about five years, I’ve been developing a project about the rise of a fascist dictator who deports Muslims. When I started, the feedback I got was that this film didn’t need to be made, it wasn’t convincing or essential. It was, perhaps, old-fashioned to depict a world where bigotry and desperation were political touchstones. Nevertheless, I persisted. Finally, earlier this month I had to confess that, as it couldn’t compete with recent world events for drama or outrage, it was time to give up on this one. It turns out real-life hell moves faster than development hell.

So, how do you make credible political cinema in a time when the news is, literally, incredible? In a time when, as artists, we want to speak out, contribute to the debate and tell stories with the complexity allowed for in long-form narrative work, must political cinema always look to the past, telling stories of things that have happened before that resonate strongly today? Should it be satirical, genre fare, which at its best has always responded to and criticized the world we live in? What is there for those of us who make drama? How can we make work that is political at its core?

Kelly Reichardt was one of my professors at film school. She would watch my work and shake her head: “Too many shots,” she would pronounce, as I would bluster about it being a chase sequence. She would share her suspicion that women’s film festivals were unfortunate ghettos, and captivate us with stories about going out early in the morning to record bird sounds. Her work both bewitched me and frustrated me – what do these films really mean? How can I know what she’s trying to say if she doesn’t tell me? Where does she get this quiet confidence to let her films exist? Questions that clearly spoke to my own insecurities, but I couldn’t shake nonetheless.

Watching Reichardt’s most recent film, the extraordinary Certain Women, these questions are gone. Perhaps this is because she is now a master of her craft, but in truth I suspect it is because I’m older and I finally understand what she is trying to do. I know more about exclusion and frustration and can see her choices as working toward describing a world I want to be represented on the screen. One I hardly ever see. It is inclusive and careful and absolutely as political as anything I could hope for.

The storytelling in Certain Women is formally striking. This is a film composed of three stories (something we have seen before, of course), but what is important is the way that Reichardt chooses to tell these stories. Were they in the hands of many other filmmakers, they could be described straightforwardly: first, a man who’s been screwed over by a compensation payout resorts to violence to get to the bottom of his case; second, an old man is forced to sell part of his property to a couple in the process of building their new home; finally, an ambitious working-class lawyer in fear for her future takes a teaching job only to discover it’s four hours’ drive to work and back. As such, all these stories are in themselves political fare, putting working-class people and predicaments center stage.

This in itself differentiates the film from many others, but Reichardt doesn’t stop there, as the central characters (and voices) in each segment are not the ones we would expect, not the ones “driving the narrative action.” The first is the lawyer (and eventual hostage) of the aggrieved man; the second is the woman in the couple; and the third is the young woman who finds herself stumbling into the class of the bright young lawyer and falling in love with her. Beyond the humanity and dignity with which Reichardt imbues her characters, the decision to tell the stories from the point of view of people traditionally more excluded from main roles (and it’s no accident these are all women) feels revolutionary.

Around the world, our voting booths are full of angry, self-centered people convinced that no one is listening to them. Twitter is full of people celebrating the most crass behavior, desperate to break the next news cycle first. Our movie theaters are full of loud, unreal films full of people behaving badly. What better way to rebel than to make work which empowers the people who have been forgotten, the outsiders? We must remind ourselves that we are all human, that one person’s life affects another, and that there is no straightforward way of seeing something. We can’t fully understand the truth of anything by looking from one angle. We can’t understand the world by only looking at the experience of the people making the headlines. We need to look beyond – to the voices excluded but affected nonetheless.

In the first chapter of Certain Women, Laura Dern’s Laura is driving the desperate Fuller (Jared Harris), who has finally realized his legal quest is at its end. Frustrated, he declares, “The only thing left to do is get a machine gun and kill everyone.” Until this point Laura has been generous, kind and patient. She has gone above and beyond her job in order to be a human being, to help this man who has been damaged by his years working in a factory and then betrayed by the insurance system designed to protect him. Like several of the men in this film, Fuller doesn’t recognize the woman in front of him as having authority, but takes advantage of her kindness. She responds impeccably, never treating him with anything less than respect. But when he threatens to pull out a gun and start shooting, she makes it clear that he has crossed a boundary. She doesn’t break character, but stands up for herself in a way entirely consistent with the person we have come to know. She says “No, you can’t say those things to me. You can’t talk to me like that.” She doesn’t see herself as a secondary character, a second-class citizen, and neither should we.

I can’t claim to know Kelly Reichardt, in fact I could almost bet she doesn’t remember me from her class. But watching her films, I know she loves her characters. She loves them and wants us to feel what they are feeling. I like many different kinds of cinema, but the filmmaking I love is that with heart. At a time full of big stories and cynical thrills, it feels like the most risky kind of work to make, but as with anything risky that we are driven to do, it is also the most important.

Hope Dickson Leach completed her MFA in filmmaking at Columbia University, where she made three short films that played at festivals worldwide. Screen International made her a Star of Tomorrow and Filmmaker magazine named her one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” Her debut feature, The Levelling, which premiered at TIFF and won Dickson Leach the inaugural IWC Filmmaker Bursary Award at the London Film Festival, is currently playing in Chicago goes on release in Los Angeles on March 31. Hope is currently developing several features and is a co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign to make the film industry more parent-friendly. She lives in Scotland with her husband and two sons.