Intimate Distances: a boundary-blurring urban documentary

This hour-long experimental documentary from Phillip Warnell appears to be a record of a casting call taking place on the streets of Queens, New York, before emerging as something rather different.

30 September 2022

By Nick Bradshaw

Intimate Distances (2020)
Sight and Sound

A portrait of an urban thoroughfare as a site of latent social exchange and potential transformation, Phillip Warnell’s hour-long experiment assembles diverse documentary modes into an open and unfamiliar shape. One such mode is the ‘outside my window’ street study, with a lofty camera trained down on the unsuspecting street life of a few blocks of Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. The view echoes the curtain-twitching studies of a Saint Petersburg street corner in Victor Kossakovsky’s Tishe!, or Vienna in John Smith’s Worst Case Scenario (both 2003), except that Warnell’s extreme long lens and jagged pans and zooms carry a more intrusive energy, recalling the weaponised camera gazes essayed in Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere (2021).

Gradually we recognise a subject: a middle-aged, white-haired woman who herself seems to be casing the terrain for something or someone. “I’m on the dance floor,” a message on screen reads as she checks out passers-by; we also see her sending private signals across the street to an accomplice, presumably the cameraperson behind the cut-in shots from street level. The improvised interview encounters that ensue, with a series of burly men, might be compared to a verité doc like Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s classic Chronicle of a Summer (1961), except that the woman – Martha Wollner, as we’re told in a title credit 20 minutes in which doesn’t elaborate that she’s a distinguished documentary casting director – keeps raising the same leading questions through a wireless mic: has their life ever suddenly switched track? Have they ever been driven to do something unthinkable?

Seeing that Wollner is somehow casting a part brings to mind another, more reflexive mode of documentary in which the filmmaking process is folded in to the film – Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet (2017), say, or Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (2016). And we can start to connect the intermittent, oblique, English-accented voiceover testifying to an offender’s time in and out of prison for an unstated crime, a deposition introduced as: “Script. Audition. Testimony. Profile.”

Yet if the prison we hear about, with its vacant time and torturous isolation, is the opposite of the bustling commons we see, so the film breaks out of its ostensible set-up as a kind of manhunt. Wollner’s method is open – intrusive but receptive – and the stories she solicits are given with cheer, thought, even relief, most evidently in the case of Samir, a would-be life coach in a dark place; their encounter ends in a remedial, mic-muffling hug. Brusquely challenging in form, the film blurs boundaries, breaks down oppositions and takes its means as its end.

► Intimate Distances is available to stream on True Story now.

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