The world of the celebutante is both overexposed and underexposed at the same time. People who aren’t necessarily famous in the traditional sense for being rich, talented, or influential get their face time and notoriety mostly by being in the right place at the right time. They have the exposure of a celebrity, but none of the actual cultural pull that it brings. They’re often magnetic personalities who on a personal level remain enigmatic to those they rub shoulders with at trendy parties and premieres.
The subject of Brazilian director Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa’s documentary Laura (playing this week at Hot Docs after winning filmmaking awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival and a TV award in his native Brazil), shows the darker side of a spendthrift glamorous lifestyle. Laura (last name unknown to the audience) shows up uninvited and unannounced to some of the biggest bashes in Manhattan, rubbing elbows with the likes of Clive Owen and Ron Perlman and making grand entrances on her own terms. At home, however, Laura is a hoarder who can barely enter her cramped apartment and a neurotic control freak with seemingly no steady source of income.
Originally intended as an objective look at this woman who transfixed him in university, Laura pulls Barbosa into her personal experiences by using him as a status symbol and forcing him to question his own motives behind making the film and if there’s anything he can do to help this woman who clearly needs an intervention of some sort.
Shortly after arriving in Toronto and just before the film was set to premiere at Hot Docs, Barbosa talked to Dork Shelf about the difficulties facing such a complex character study and his chronically tenuous relationship to his subject.
Dork Shelf: You first met Laura in 2000, correct?
Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa: Yeah, I met Laura in 2000. I had arrived in New York that summer to study film. I was at Hofstra University on Long Island at the time. I was 19 and I was there on a Fulbright Scholarship. I used to go to the city all the time because I had this idea that I was going to be in New York, but really I was on Long Island, so that was very different from what I expected, so I would hop on the train very often.
We met at the premiere of a film that we don’t agree on what it was. She says it was an Almodovar film and I think it was a Brazilian documentary. That was our first conflict. (laughs) In any case, I just remember just looking at her and admiring her and she was looking back at me, and this spark just occurred. I like to say it was a recognition of the future and everything we were going to do nine years later.
Very soon after I had the idea of making a film about her or making a film with her. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I wanted to make a short film that would be in an observational style; just following her around from her house to a party, then have her come back on the train at the end of the night, and that would be the end of it.
At the time, she belonged a lot more to this culture. She wasn’t so much in the fringe. I was very surprised, because at the time she would go out and talk to celebrities, and I was 19 years old and I had just arrived in New York. It was so attractive to me. I was going to all these parties and always having so much fun, but I was always so curious about who she was. She was so mysterious and she wouldn’t talk very much about her life. In any case, for ten years she said no. It wasn’t like I was asking her every week, but every now and then I would come back to this idea, but she did not want to do it.
Then eventually at the end of 2009 when I decided to move back to Brazil almost ten years later, I called her to say goodbye. By this point she had already disappeared largely from my routine because I was doing my masters at Columbia, so I was focusing on a lot of other things. So I call her to say goodbye, and I told her if she wants to ever do it that it has to be now or never. Then she agreed.
So I started shooting with a friend doing sound and another friend from NYU doing cinematography with the first ever DSLR camera on the market so no one would really know we were shooting, and then after ten days of shooting on my own dime I went back to Brazil. Slowly I started looking at the footage and then I realized that the film needed to have me in it, because she’s constantly referring to me in those moments.
DS: She was definitely showing you off and telling people that you were making a film about her. Did that ever make you uncomfortable?
FGB: In the beginning I resisted and I would ask her not to refer to me at all because originally I had the idea of creating this almost fictional film from an observational style of shooting in which the process isn’t at all revealed. But I really loved these moments, and a lot of it turned out to be the best material. At first I was a little uncomfortable, but I also thought it was really funny, actually.
There’s a scene in the film right before Laura goes and tries to talk to Clive Owen where she keeps telling people that I was making a movie about her and saying that I was their director and that they were being recorded showed that she was very keen on respect. She’s always alerting people, and that’s really cute. I think that builds a sense of empathy. A lot of these people are very conscious of their image, but in a way it was really helpful because she’s pretty much getting all of our releases for us. (laughs)
Then when I went home and I started putting together the footage I made a little teaser trailer, and then I wrote a project and I applied to two funds in Brazil and I won one of them that year. So I went back there the following winter with the agenda that’s in the second half of the movie where I go back to help her get rid of some of her stuff.
At the end of the first half, I found out about the hoarding problem, and I saw her room and I was really shocked. Then I really thought I had a feature film, but I knew she wasn’t going to let me in right away. It was very hard for her to let me into her personal space, which is really metaphorical of a lot of other things like what she’s trying to protect.
I created this intervention, which was me helping her try to get this stuff out of the room and sort it out so we could get some of this back to her mom in Brazil. We had a sponsor from a moving company that agreed to send the stuff for free. Hopefully we were going to throw some stuff away, and I thought this would be nice for the presentation and a nice way to represent. Then, you see the movie and things really got out of hand and out of control and I got caught up in this mess. When I got caught up in this soup, I made some pretty bad decisions.
So by that point the most difficult part of the process was in the editing and confronting what I had ultimately done. It just made sense to bring in an outside editor and a screenwriter by that point. It was really important for them to make me face who I was and what I had done and all my flaws and my obsession. I think our stories meet in this same obsession that we have with cinema, but they are manifested in different ways.
DS: Was it hard on you to reach out to help her and to finally let go once and for all of your goal to be as objective and passive as possible? We’re you prepared for how intense she was going to get?
FGB: I wasn’t prepared for anything. I was just going to go with the flow, you know. I have to say it was really hard for me because she never liked the film. We had two stages. We had a TV version of the film which screened in Latin America, which is shorter, and that was a much lighter version that didn’t have any of the second part included in it at all. That one she was okay with. She didn’t love it and she didn’t hate it, but she agreed with it.
But the feature, she never liked it. She never agreed with it. I knew the moment that I debuted the film that it was going to be the end of our personal relationship and that was really complicated for me to deal with emotionally or psychologically, and I did need some help. It took some time. The film had already been completed for about six or seven months and I didn’t have the courage to submit it to any place or to show it anywhere.
Finally, the Hamptons Film Festival saw it because we had gotten a grant from Cinereach, as well. They sent them the film through some liaison, and they really insisted that the film premiere there, and that was when I made the decision to go there, and it ended up winning the best documentary award. It was really well received, and she did show up there.
For me it was important that she showed up there and she saw how people reacted to her, and a lot of the time the people who love the film also love her. That’s the bottom line that I think she has a hard time accepting and loving herself, in a way.
I think it’s symbolic that most of the stuff that she collects is movie related stuff. That’s kind of magical. You see how many posters she actually has.
DS: And it extends to other film related ephemera, as well, like when she is handing you things in the hallway and she produces not one but two of the same Martin Scorsese DVD box sets.
FGB: (laughs) And I’m laughing like a madman. That’s one of the things I regret, because I shouldn’t have laughed there. For me it was a great surprise. And she actually gave me on of those for Christmas.
Something that really impressed me and something that I’ll never forget is that she had all of these call sheets from Comedy Central shows. (laughs) What is she going to do with this stuff? And she had all of these beta tapes that she could never watch from them. We tried to argue with her about this. And the posters, we counted about 35 or 40 of those.
DS: Now that you have gone through all the footage and assembled it and after having lived there, how do you think Laura fits into the arts scene there and how she’s perceived? Has anyone who has dealt with her been able to put her life into a different perspective for you?
FGB: Well, we had a screening in Brazil and someone who had known her his entire life told me that he loved it and that it was really respectful. But how do people perceive her is an interesting question, because since then I have left New York. I haven’t really been around there so much. I feel most people have a fairly good idea now what her life could be like, but they nobody can really know the full degree of the hurricane that’s in her room. I think that’s what she was always afraid of. But I don’t think anybody is really going to judge her for that, and I doubt her life is going to change. On the contrary, I think people like to see others finally opening up and they appreciate that.
What always fascinated me about Laura’s character and still does – even though the film has a phase of disenchantment when I stopped being charmed by her – is that she does really does have an internal conflict between wanting to be seen and wanting to be completely clandestine. That’s something that I can really identify it. She loves the spotlight and she loves being a complete unknown in New York. Those two deeply paradoxical things are things that a lot of people could love, and I do, too. There’s a mirror between me and her.
I think the most important thing in this film was that realization during the editing that it’s kind of impossible to represent the truth of someone in a film, but what film can do and I tried to do here, was to represent as well as possible was that relationship that we had. Film is a great place to show relationships evolving through time, and ours constantly changes throughout the film. From that I think you have a real narrative experience.
It’s ironic to think about it now because in the beginning I thought I could make a film about Laura feel like fiction with me hiding my presence, but that only held up for two days and I gave up on the third day. What really makes this feel fictional is that we expose the process and we show our negotiations with her out in the open. I think in that sense you can appreciate this almost as a love story between these two characters, the young director and this beautiful older woman.
I think in a way it’s kind of inspired a little bit by [Werner] Herzog at the end of Grizzly Man where he listens to something that we never hear, and it makes the moments so much stronger just to see the emotions. I’m looking through the door and seeing what’s inside the door, but the audience does not.
But I’m still glad that at the end of this that she did show up at The Hamptons. She was in a wig and a disguise. It was perfect. A few people spotted her in the first screening and I didn’t believe it, so in the second screening which was right after the awards ceremony I started looking for her and I spotted her immediately. That was when she made her scene. She just started screaming and saying I was a liar, but that’s another story.