Julie Platner MFA EDA ‘21: “Third Alternate Executor”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Tom Rankin, director of the MFA EDA program, interviews Julie Platner MFA EDA ‘21.

Maybe the place to start is the most obvious place. Why this film for your MFA thesis?

Moving back to California gave me the opportunity to go spend time with my uncle, who has always been an interesting character to me. All his knickknacks and collections, his interest in various banal things—I was always interested in that aspect of him. I was always captivated by the eccentricities, to take a minute or look a little longer. Every time I bring a friend or bring somebody that’s outside of the family over to see him, they’re always amazed at how different he is, in so many ways, and also how warm and friendly. But also eccentric. I always looked at him and thought what a wonderful subject he would be for a film.

My style of filmmaking is extremely intimate, quiet. I like to disappear as much as possible, trying not to intervene as much as possible. I think that that’s where the magic happens for me. And so a subject who just likes to talk and likes to show things is ideal. The camera, for me, mediates my experience of reality. I think that feels important because I’ve always been so sensitive to details, and to people, and to situations. I feel like I pick up a lot of information. So the camera is a way for me to handle that information, to process it. It just feels like a lot’s coming at me when I’m looking at someone, and hearing them, or looking. It’s a way to literally pull focus.

All photos courtesy Julie Platner MFA EDA ‘21.

Have you thought at all about how your work evolved from still photographs to something much more intimate, familial, and time-based?

My impulse to go toward journalism as a career, as a way of working, was this idea that we can capture truth, and reality. It was being out there in the world with real people where real things were happening. And what I realized when I got there was that the news cycle is quick. It’s very quick. And it doesn’t have space for nuance, doesn’t have space to hang out a little longer, or to look a little harder. I brought what I thought was a really great news story. But speaking to my old work, I brought it with this kind of question mark. Like, “What is this thing? We need to look at this thing and talk about this thing.” And there really was no space for that. Editors really wanted answers.

So I figured out that journalism wasn’t really the space for me, specifically. It was a miscalculation on my part, in that sense. I want a longer format, and I want to take more time and sit with people longer. I’m more interested in asking the tough question, rather than necessarily having the answers. I don’t believe the complex issues that I am interested in have quick or easy answers. Things change and evolve: I want to see and be around things that are happening and work through questions or issues that bother me. And really, truly, it’s to be out there, right?

Can you talk about what it means to work with family stories? How is it to work with family, and to collaborate?

It’s way more complicated, I think, to work with family. And it comes with a whole package of things. It’s a very particular world we exist in as documentarians. And if you’re not familiar with the language, if you have a family member who hasn’t watched six or seven documentaries, it’s pretty foreign to them. So even being able to explain it is challenging.

I think the concern, of course—regardless of who your subject is—is that you’re taking advantage. That’s my concern, anyways. I’m just really aware of how transparent I’m being. And if I am extracting versus being regenerative or working to create something new. And balancing these things. It’s a big departure from the journalism I left behind 10 years ago. But, things have changed in terms of the questions we are expected to be asking, as journalists or documentarians.

I have a little bit of an advantage with Kenny. And in that sense, he’s the perfect subject, because he has given me full access but he’s also not on the internet. He’s a little bit removed from all that. So I feel a little bit more safe in that department, in terms of not overexposing him. But ultimately, the concern would be that I would hurt his feelings in some capacity, right? That I would put something in there or look at him in a way that he doesn’t want to be looked at, or he doesn’t want to show other people. I’m holding up a mirror to him for other people and for him. It matters what he sees in that reflection. And that’s funny thing about moving images: it’s not just a photograph, it’s not a static thing.

There is line you are walking in this film, a line much documentary has within it: Are we admiring what Kenny shows us or are we laughing at what he reveals, are we gawking at what he displays or are we leaning closer to understand? In the end, you navigate it nicely. And the film in the end is not really about that. It is about the solitary and reflexive character who has this amazing life in this small little place.

Absolutely. And that’s critical. Such difficult and complex issues and subject matter tend to be heavy in quality. One of the things I learned about myself is that I don’t want to make life any heavier than it already is, even though I want to talk about the difficult things.  Kenny’s relative lightness helps me to walk that line. You described it perfectly.

All these signifiers: the mobile home, the isolation, et cetera can represent a relative depression or some—or whatever. A place you initially might think you don’t want to be, as you said. And he does have a lightness and a joy to him. That’s really important to me. And it was really important to me to make sure that those things stayed intact through this process. That’s the kind of work I want to make. I think there’s something incredible that happens when you can have both. The paradox. That’s the sweet spot.