Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Intimate Distances, A Predetermined Script


Maeve Connolly investigates Intimate Distances, looking at it within the context of Phillip Warnell’s wider work. Phillip Warnell’s Intimate Distances is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

Martha Wollner, a short white woman well into middle-age, is moving through the streets of Queens, greeting the occasional man who catches her eye. They are all much younger than her and several are people of colour. Martha is not trying to blend in. From time to time, she stops on a street corner as though trying to orient herself. She’s not carrying a bag, and this alone marks her as different from other female pedestrians of her age. Rather, she presents herself as slightly out of place within this world, inviting polite curiosity or even mild concern. Whenever her greetings to chosen strangers are returned, she pursues a very specific line of enquiry, adhering to a predetermined script. Martha is a casting director and, although she doesn’t announce her purpose, she is on the lookout for a man who might be able to embody a convicted criminal. The vantage point of this criminal, ostensibly a real person, is articulated through a series of voiceover fragments. He speaks of prison life in a disembodied voice, largely devoid of emotion, but his words communicate the pain of separation from the ordinary rhythms of city life.

Intimate Distances is uncannily prescient in its close attention to the social organisation of urban space, and also acutely attuned to the privileges of class and colour that tend to govern interactions between strangers in such spaces. This is not Phillip Warnell’s first investigation of boundaries between bodies, and their transgression. But while some of his earlier works, such as Outlandish: Strange Foreign Bodies (2009) and Ming of Harlem (2014), featured non-human entities in leading roles, Intimate Distances seems much more focused on the narrativisation of human experience, and the ongoing construction of the self as a dramatic protagonist, presented with both challenges and opportunities.  Martha is an expert in the efficient cultivation of trust and several strangers disclose personal histories of anxiety and depression. Similar disclosures can be found in Gillian Wearing’s documentary Self Made (2010), which features a celebrated method acting coach who teaches non-professional actors to mine their traumatic memories. While the camera is a remote presence in Intimate Distances, the performers in Self Made are visibly immersed within the unfamiliar environments of the acting school and film set. Yet their awareness of being filmed does not necessarily make them any less vulnerable. There are other, perhaps more important, differences between Self Made and Intimate Distances. While Wearing seems to frame method acting as a quasi-therapeutic technique that enables the rewriting of personal histories, Intimate Distances remains resolutely focused on the social and political forces that shape individual narratives.  The prison, evoked off-screen, exists as a kind shadow of the city, a place where many personal stories may terminate. Yet Warnell also registers alternative narrative possibilities, through sonic and textual allusions to street protests occurring elsewhere, revealing the city as a site of unexpectedly rich intersubjective exchange, where the bodies and voices of strangers can cohere with purpose.

Maeve Connolly is co-director of the ARC Masters programme at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dublin.

Tickets for Intimate Distances are on sale now.