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Film Spotlight: WOEFF 2024 Closing Statement

directed by Lori Felker, US, 20:00


Patient, directed by Lori Felker, at first may strike its audience as a straight-forward— if somewhat unsettling— documentary, narrative, or docufiction film. Unlike the other films in WOEFF 2024, Patient does not alter the physical, chemical, or digital modes of its production; it does not explore and revel in modified image-capturing techniques or non-traditional cinematography; it does not abstract its subject through flickered editing or by breaking down its imagery; it does not make explicit its filmmaker’s subjective experience through essayistic voiceover or text-on-screen.


However, Patient fits right in to WOEFF, and indeed is appropriate as the final film of the final program, What Next, for its revelatory re-working of forms and traditions of experimental filmmaking. By combining elements from the traditions of theatrical improv, devised theatre, and documentary, the film builds on, expands, and challenges the perceived limitations of the role of narrative in the structural film.


Structural films are a vein of experimental film that first came to prominence in the 1960s. Structural filmmakers explored the ontological apparatus of film, often isolating the individual building blocks of cinema, like shot duration, light, and the frame, to make a spectacle, often out of seemingly mundane subjects. For example, 9 Minutes, by James Riddle, presents time— and only time— through the presentation of white text on a black screen counting each second that passes for, appropriately, nine minutes. The viewer, then, is forced to confront and feel time, with no other content to distract from the pure experience of duration. A less tongue-in-cheek example is the somewhat more engaging, though still spare, Fog Line, by Larry Gottheim, wherein a 400-foot roll of film, approximately 11 minutes, silently captures fog gently drifting away and revealing a landscape. Thus the film emphasizes the all-seeing, all-capturing, all-remembering infallibility of chemical film. 


Certainly, Patient cannot be considered a traditional structural film, at least not by the purist gatekeepers of the movement. It does not isolate the physical, ontological elements of cinema. Its emphasis on human characters and its narrative arc would preclude it from being considered a structural film by some of the movement’s more hardline theorists. 


However, the process of finding the story of Patient has a strong bond to traditional structural films. In her director statement, Felker describes Patient as “part observation, part improvisation...[with] a light narrative...” In the statement, Felker explains that she went to the University of Wisconsin Health Sciences Learning Center to see how medical students practice handling patients with a specialized type of actor called Standardized Patients (SPs) standing in for real patients. Then she cast those same SPs to play both film’s SPs and medical students; then, Felker invented cases and character descriptions for all of the cast. The layers of reality create a complicated web: the actors are playing actors whose emotional states affect their performances; while the characters recognize the emotional weight of the other characters, these connections go largely unspoken, credited to the actors’ connections the SP character biographies. The spectator is then left to wonder how much of the real-life actors’ emotional states are visible on-screen. For example, if real-life Gayle is playing a version of herself who sees herself in the character she plays in the simulated doctor office visit, how much of real-life Gayle connecting to the fictional version of herself? Even within this constructed world, though, the film seeks to observe the actions and reactions rather than dictate their outcome.


Patient also engages in a process similar to the process of devising in alternative theatre pieces. Like structural film, devising approaches its process with a clear understanding of the shape of the whole piece ahead of the production, with few elements predetermined as the subject of exploration, and other elements left to unfold due to chance, improvisation, and/or collaborative creation.


Many devised theatre works start out from an idea the collective wants to pursue or a topic they want to learn about, they then research and/or observe that idea/topic and related areas, and then they start doing disconnected improv scenes to find the story, and slowly collect and edit scenes into a finished work (the whole). The collective all have immense creative control, but there also tends to be a creative lead who toes the line between director and facilitator helping sculpt the parts into one. In this devising process, the focus is undoubtedly on the creation of the story, on using a specific/small list of improv exercise(s) to organically play with the story/characters/ideas from “random” prompts to find out what happens; much in the way that structural films play with their mechanical elements to see what happens. Given that Patient’s construction highlights and explores the storytelling process through the specific technique of improvisation, it is clear that the film is a genre-blurring extension of the structural film mode.


By treating performance and reality as foundational elements of the cinematic apparatus, Patient expands the potentials of structural filmmaking as a potential site of recursive, self-reflexive, metafiction.


- Ezra Goodman, BA Theatre and Performance ‘24

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