DURHAM — The Full Frame Documentary film festival wraps up Sunday in downtown Durham with the traditional awards barbecue event and several encore screenings of sold-out and award-winning films.
One of the final films to screen in this year’s festival is the impressionistic biography “In So Many Words,” from Durham filmmaker Elisabeth Haviland James .
“In So Many Words” profiles author and Raleigh-based clinical psychologist Lucy Daniels, born into the wealthy Daniels family that owned The News & Observer for more than 100 years, from 1894 through 1995.
After spending five years in psychiatric hospitals for treatment of severe anorexia – from age 16 to 21 – Daniels became a best-selling writer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She would later establish the Lucy Daniels Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to psychoanalytic treatment and research, and the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood.
James’ film is structured around an extended interview with Daniels, now 79, about her troubled childhood and early life. As Daniels recalls her experiences, the film switches to dreamlike re-created scenes. These include memories of family life, as well as harrowing passages concerning institutionalization and shock treatment. Children and young actresses are used in these scenes to portray Daniels at various stages of her life.
In regard to traditional documentary filmmaking, it’s a relatively adventurous approach. Dramatic re-creations are common enough in documentaries, but James’ sequences employ stylized film techniques – visual treatments, camera angles, sound design – to establish a specific, surreal tone. The result is a highly impressionistic film that explores the very nature of memory and recollection.
The re-creations were also a somewhat practical matter.
“There wasn’t a ton of archival material to work from,” James said. “I didn’t want these to be traditional re-creations. I didn’t want to use dialogue. I wanted them to be more like impressions of passing moments.”
James collaborated closely with writing partner Lindsay Devlin and cinematographer Andreas Burgess to achieve the effect. She also worked from material in Daniels’ published memoirs.
“We wanted to make it clear that we weren’t being literal,” she said. “We were inspired by feelings and instances evoked by her in the writing.”
For the contemporary interview scenes, James interviewed Daniels on camera for about 12 hours total over two sittings. Speaking from her home in Raleigh, Daniels said that watching the completed film was both surprising and rewarding.
“I don’t like the way I look, but everyone feels that way,” Daniels said with a laugh. “The younger you look, you like it better. But I do like the way I am. It’s pretty much how I am. She filmed it very naturally.”
‘Pain and struggle’
Daniels said she also appreciated James’ approach to visual reconstruction, which includes abstract imagery filmed in Duke Forest.
“I loved the sequences in the woods – that’s very much like analysis,” Daniels said. “When it’s your life and you’re looking at the images, it’s interesting: They might not be the images in your own head, but in terms of conveying something to an audience, they fit very well.”
Revisiting her earliest memories was interesting experience, Daniels said.
“At my point in life, I can look back and I can remember things like the shock treatments,” Daniels said. “In my story there’s a lot of struggle. Sometimes when you struggle it’s painful. Sometimes it’s thrilling. Pain and struggle can be very valuable.”
James said she’s particularly happy to be premiering her film – a local story made with local resources – at Full Frame. She’s also looking forward to seeing the audience’s reaction to her strategy of emotionally evocative visualizations.
“It will be really interesting to see, at Full Frame, what the discussion will be afterward,” James said. “Even a classic, purist, verité documentary is all about choices. You’re deciding what your subject is, where you’re going to point your camera, how you’re going to film it. … I think this just takes it one step further in the level of choices.”