Sibling filmmakers Elan and Jonathan Bogarín create unique cinematic experience as they excavate their late grandmother's home
A conversation with filmmakers Elan and Jonathan Bogarín might seem more suited to an MLA convention than to the mezzanine of the W Hotel in Hollywood. Sitting in a cushioned alcove above the lobby, the sister-brother directors move easily around cultural touchstones, referencing Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Roland Barthes, for example.
Those and other thinkers come up as they describe a universe of ideas they drew from -- literary, philosophical, artistic and scientific -- for their film 306 Hollywood, a reinvention of the form of the biographical documentary.
I think 'magical realist documentary' is fairly accurate in that the film utilizes the languages of mythology, fairy tales and magical realism to tell a real person's story.
Eschewing a straightforward approach to the story of their late grandmother, Annette Ontell, the siblings incorporate aesthetic techniques that wouldn't seem out of place in a Wes Anderson film -- title cards, miniatures, cinematic lighting, production design and camera moves, actors and even a dreamy dance sequence performed by young women, retro-fitted, as it were, in 1950s girdles. These are combined with some of the more traditional tools of documentary -- interviews with their grandmother they shot over a period of 10 years, along with vintage footage from the many decades of her life, going back at least to the 1930s.
The overall tone has been called 'magical realist,' a term the Bogaríns embrace.
"I think 'magical realist documentary' is fairly accurate in that the film utilizes the languages of mythology, fairy tales and magical realism to tell a real person's story," Jonathan explains. "We almost wanted to blow up the whole concept of what a nonfiction film normally is and what our expectations are for it."
306 Hollywood -- the title comes from the address of the modest home where Ontell lived in Hillside, New Jersey for more than 70 years -- is now playing in Los Angeles. It opens in Chicago on Friday (October 19) and in Washington DC and other cities in the coming weeks. It will air on the PBS program POV in 2019.
Elan and Jonathan enjoyed an unusually close relationship with their grandmother, spending every Sunday at her house for 30 years. After she died in 2011, at the age of 93, sister and brother decided to make a film about her. What they had to work with, apart from the interviews they had recorded previously, was a home filled the artifacts of everyday existence.
"Grandma's house is transformed," Jonathan says in voiceover in the film. "Her bedroom isn't for sleeping. Her kitchen isn't for eating. And her objects are no longer for use. They're for telling stories."
Brother and sister style themselves as archaeologists, excavating a life. They faced a mountain of material to go through -- clothing Annette designed and sewed herself; tax records stored by their late grandfather, an accountant; pictures, pantyhose, newspaper clippings, magazines, vacuum cleaners, paper clips, enough rubber bands to wrap around New Jersey.
Jonathan: "Our grandmother, she grew up in the Great Depression and she always had this sensibility that 'I might have this today but I probably won't have it tomorrow so I should probably hang on to it.' And she kept that sensibility throughout her whole life. She wasn't exactly a hoarder, she was more just a keeper.
Elan: The house was very clean. It just had too much stuff in it.
Jonathan: Since she never really threw these things away we could literally go decade by decade through the 20th century. We had a hundred years of stuff. And you actually do slices of time and see what was happening in our grandmother's life, what was happening in our family's life and then what was happening in the life of the world. You could see like the styles of the 1950s. You could see how things changed in the 1970s, what things were being written, what things were being published. You could see the tax code changing from the 1940s until the early 1990s.
Jonathan: The reason we came up with this idea of archaeology is we're like, 'Wait a minute. Archaeology is just the study of history through the objects that are left behind.' We have that in this house and we can see this cross section of a certain type of middle class American life.
Elan: The irony is that we once had our grandmother and now we have her stuff. It's not that each piece is so inherently important. It's that when you put it all together it's indicative of a world. It's indicative of her life. It represents that she was once here.
Troy Herion composed a film score that is vital to facilitating the tonal shifts between the realistic (the archival interviews) and the magical -- slow pans across miniaturized recreations of rooms in the house, or Annette's possessions arranged in artistic tableaux.
Troy: If you walked into a home full of objects and it was a stranger's house they would mostly be trivial objects. But for the person who knows or was related to the person that just passed away those objects have something to them, there's a life that's being emitted from those objects... There is like an electricity here.
Troy: There's sort of a dream world that we created, the fairy tales kind of halo around it, but then there's the house itself which was antique. It was a little bit broken down, so there were also broken instruments I used [for the score]. And old vintage sounds that I mixed with musicians in a beautiful recording studio. So there were all these colors that could overlap and layer, very much like I think the film did.
The filmmakers cast young actors to play themselves as children, and other performers to play their mother, an uncle, and their grandparents, Annette and Herman. In one scene we hear audio recorded in 1971 of a family argument, with the actors lip-syncing the words.
Elan: We didn't necessarily look at those as recreations so much as, 'Wait, we have a different way to visualize the past. We have a different way to literally bring something back to life.' ... It was another way of saying, 'What does it mean to reconstruct something?' and then more so, 'What does it mean to bring the past back to life?' And isn't every documentary, aren't we effectively trying to bring the past back to life?
The directors incorporate observations from a variety of figures from outside the family -- among them a physicist, an archaeologist, a funeral director, a librarian and an expert who carefully examined many of the pieces of clothing Annette had designed and kept in her home.
Jonathan: The clothing conservator came to the house and did an autopsy on our grandmother's dresses. She was like, 'They're still alive.' And we're like, 'They're still alive! How do we show that?'
They arrived on the idea of casting dancers to wear the dresses. Six women performed a balletic sequence on the home's front lawn, first in the dresses, later carrying the garments as they danced in girdle-like attire.
Jonathan: During [filming of] the dance number the neighbors, they lined up their lawn chairs and they brought their kids out and they were watching from the other side of the street.
Elan: It was clear that the neighbors were so used to us doing weird stuff in the house at this point that this was of no concern to them. They were like, 'This is brilliant!'
I asked the filmmakers how the process of making the documentary had changed them, and perhaps made them more aware of the objects they own and what those pieces may come to mean to their own descendants, at some point in the future.
In her response, Elan made reference to filming she had done not only of her grandmother Annette, but of loved ones on her father's side of the family, in Venezuela.
Elan: We recognize now that enough years have even passed in our own lives that almost everyone that we documented on both sides [of the family] is gone. You start to see quickly you're part of a bigger time scale. Maybe in 50 years we'll come back and make a film that's actually looking back on how we become her [grandma Annette]. And that all of this effectively becomes a cycle that's going to keep repeating and repeating and repeating. The only difference is that we happened to document some of it. You become very conscious of what remains that proves it existed, that proves she existed... It's just cycle after cycle. We're all part of that.
Some of the objects from Annette Ontell's home, arranged by the filmmakers. Photos courtesy El Tigre Productions
The filmmakers kept their grandmother's house for more than a year after her death. Now, though, it's home to another family, a storehouse for someone else's objects and memories.
Jonathan: Part of what we wanted to communicate through the film was the process of letting go. The film's obviously about hanging on -- because we hung on to all the stuff, we went through all the stuff obsessively -- but we did that in order to be able to let go. Because we knew that eventually we would have to sell it... We can't hang on forever and we can't stay in the house for our whole lives, so it's this question of letting go and releasing and moving forward in your life.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.