Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Ruth Leitman

REVIEWED: 03-16-98

In works of documentary cinema, the proximity between subject and audience falls on any particular point within a broad spectrum. On one end are the types of historical documentaries you might find on themed cable channels, in which the viewer can be distanced from the subject matter by 200 years of time and "voice-of-God" narration. On the other end is the rarer cinema, in which not only the audience and subject, but also the filmmaker, crew, and the camera itself, share such a tight sphere of naked space and emotion that all of their souls are laid bare. It is a cinema in which the truth, as elusive and fragmented as it may become, is ultimately inescapable. This is Ruth Leitman's brand of cinema.

Leitman, who first came to SXSW in 1996 with Wildwood, New Jersey, returns to Austin for the world premiere of her latest documentary, Alma. An investigation of the relationship between a daughter (Margie) and her mentally ill mother (Alma) in the South, the film combines the emotional force of psychodrama with the twists, turns, and upturned secrets of a mystery novel.

It was Margie herself who initiated the project, approaching Leitman (they had already known each other for over a decade) with the idea of doing a documentary about her mother, about whom she had always loved to tell stories. The production was continuously encountering the unexpected, the parameters of the project ever-changing. For example, as Leitman explains, "It started as a piece about the past between Margie and her mother, but Alma's mental health forced us into the present."

Leitman spent three and a half years with the family, not only documenting but also sharing the intimate and at times unbearably painful process of discovery and emotional exploration between mother and daughter. During those years, the traditional barriers between chronicler and subject began to erode away. "I felt at times like I was part of their family," Leitman says, "that I was Margie's sister and Alma's mother." She sees this as the chief difference between documentary and fiction film. "It's what makes a movie like this so much harder than a narrative, where at the end of the day there is a space of relief when cast and crew can step out of character and go home to their 'real lives.' In documentary, your story is real life."

The end result is a film that respects the integrity of its own methodology: There are no attempts of invented clarification inherent in a third-person narrator or "expert" witness; no forced designs of narrative closure; no masking of pain or pathos or humor. As Leitman puts it, "I want the viewer to sort out what is truth and fantasy, to define and redefine their opinions of what's going on, just as I experienced while filming it." It's an exploration by the audience, the filmmakers, and the subjects themselves of a kind you've never quite seen in a documentary before.

--Jerry Johnson

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