"When God Closes a Door, He Always Opens a Window" — The Sound of Music

in 54th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Mark Peranson

Over six years on and off in the making, Jennifer Reeves’ debut feature “The Time We Killed” is a beautiful, impressionistic and deeply personal cinematic poem that, even though it takes the point of view of a so-called mentally disturbed woman, captures a clear view of the world that we live in now. Somewhat of a companion piece to Reeves’ earlier half-hour short “Chronic”, “The Time We Killed” combines elements of experimental film, narrative cinema, documentary to create a stellar example of personal filmmaking that operates on multiple levels — psychological, sociological, political, and even technological.

Lisa Jarnot plays Robyn, a depressive shut-in (and borderline agoraphobe), who, try as she might to keep the world outside of her New York apartment at arm’s length, can’t prevent it from penetrating her private space — whether it’s a murder-suicide in the apartment next door, the memories of her true love, or the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. We see Robyn as she ruminates on her state of things, trying to write, and trying to overcome an earlier suicide attempt that affected her memory. Jarnot composed some of her poems in character, and Reeves compensates for the added free association by toning down her own frequently stunning optically printed images (her visual acumen, seen most recently in “Fear of Blushing”, is unassailable); she skillfully modulates the film’s rhythm to account for the consciousness of her character, resulting in a fully subjective work that manages to give space for an audience to interpret and bring themselves into the film (recalling, at times, the work of Stan Brakhage).

Where a lesser director shooting such a story might bog down in futile self-absorption (the monotone voiceover threatens to dull the senses at times), Reeves creates a structure that reflects the complexity of daily life. Reeves films the exteriors, mostly comprised of Robyn’s memories, on high contrast, handheld black and white 16mm, while the interiors are shot on DV on a tripod; it’s as if Robyn could be filming her own life as a kind of obsessive video diary. Though “The Time We Killed” is the first of Reeves’ works to have a cast and crew outside of Reeves’ alternate personalities (as she put it), though Reeves still finds it hard to relinquish control — the director, who was also photographer, sound recordist, and editor, shot the film in her own apartment, also acted as a frequent stand-in for Jarnot, and plays Robyn’s “sister”.

As the home movie genre threatens to explode (witness the frightening success of “Capturing the Friedmans”), Reeves presents this new technology as two sided: it’s certainly beneficial in that it enables filmmakers to be self-sufficient, but “The Time We Killed” complicates the way DV can make an individual more isolated. In contrast, the gorgeous imagery of the 16mm, especially when representing Robyn’s memories in abstraction, makes the objects of Reeves’ longing especially clear. She manages to capture a conflicted feeling, that of being afraid of a certain part of society, but also longing for communication, and even helping save some of it — just like she wants to save 16 mm from its looming demise.

As September 11th and its aftermath rolls around, Reeves allegorizes Robyn’s shut-in state to that of the nation as a whole, and “The Time We Killed” resonates as an anti-isolationist statement, with all connotations of that phrase. Reeves said that 9/11 made her afraid, not of another attack, but due to her own powerlessness at Bush’s forthcoming retaliation. And, at that point, she decided she couldn’t just make a “personal film,” based on her own feelings and experiences, because they just seemed less important than what was going on outside of her home. Such an attitude assumes a divide between the personal and the political, and in making the film Reeves came to the proper conclusion that the line between the two isn’t as clear as some may assume. Robyn (and Reeves) realizes that it’s futile to lock oneself in, and “The Time We Killed”, a rare example of a successful, sustainable experimental feature, ends on a surprising glimmer of hope.