There have been plenty of purposefully uncomfortable films to sit through and just as many documentaries that don’t pull punches when it comes to the private lives of subjects and filmmakers, but there hasn’t quite been a film as electrifying and squirm inducing as the mid-range feature i hate myself : ), which screens Wednesday night at Camera as part of MDFF and The Seventh Art’s monthly screening series. This Harlem and Brooklyn set tale from documentarian and artist Joanna Arnow holds a mirror up to the filmmaker as much as it does the people around her as one woman decides to chronicle her six month old romantic relationship with almost catastrophic consequences and bracing emotional content.
Arnow, already an established cameraperson in the documentary world, starts off mid-story and picks up part way through a romantic partnership with James Kepple, an open mic slam poet with few discernible good qualities outside of a level of confidence so high that he’s not afraid to look nerdy, talk dirty, or wear sweatpants all the time. Almost immediately, James is a thoroughly unlikable person: a libertarian lout and hopelessly misguided racist who provokes with tirades such as “women are the true niggers of the world” and constant talk about how people need to constantly use racial slurs in an effort to take them back from their oppressors while desperately trying to be black. The fact that he’s dating a Jew only seems to add to the fact that he has no clue what he’s talking about.
And yet, the blatant discomfort comes from the fact that Joanna loves James and she can’t really find a way to leave him. If they broke up, she would seemingly be lost. James isn’t physically abusive, and while many of their jokes and jabs at each other early on seem like long standing running gags between friends, there are still plenty of warning signs that both Joanna and James are patently undateable. She’s unsure what she wants from life outside of a desire to work and be loved. He just wants to drink all day and spout useless platitudes about the state of capitalist society. They’re completely wrong for each other, but then again they’re both completely wrong for anyone at this point in their lives.
Joanna, who never had a steady boyfriend before this point and who readily admits to be a novice when it comes to love, never once shies away from the most unnerving intimate details of her life, including the sex she has with James. Along with her constantly naked co-editor Max (who’s actually the grounding force of the film for any outside observers), Arnow has crafted an impeccably pieced together work of staggering awkwardness that plays like a Todd Solondz remounting of Sherman’s March. There’s absolutely nothing on display here that any rational person would ever want to see played out on screen (especially anyone who has dated someone like James), and yet it’s impossible to turn away.
Arnow will be in attendance for a Q&A following the 9:00pm screening tomorrow, and while there are plenty of questions to be asked of her, it will be interesting to see if anyone comes forward to actually ask them. You’ve never seen a documentary like this, and it’s so singular, original, and painful that you’ll likely never see one like it again.