Sketch & Study is the short and long of how one goes from watching to writing about films. Michelle Wang watches a film and takes stock of exactly how she feels, no holds barred, right after watching the film then, a few hours or days later, mulls over its layers.
A short monologue based on Alissija’s changing sense of self throughout the documentary ‘A Year Full of Drama’, who realises she never knew she could “have so many emotions”.
[mobiles users: flip phone horizontally to read]
Previous version of self, emotionally unavailable and immature. Has a tendency to wallow, deny, respond bitterly.
Evolved and evolving self, more self-aware and expressive about their emotions. Appreciates conflict but hopes for discussion.
In parallel universes, NEW SELF and OLD SELF are responding to the same person.
Stage is in darkness. Two spotlights side by side about 1.5m apart. NEW SELF dressed in white; OLD SELF in black.
OLD SELF kicks the ground, scoffs.
I’m…in shock. I mean, give me a moment. Um, this is not what I expected from our walk in the park.
OLD SELF continues to kick the ground, head down, shaking head.
(shakily) I want to talk about it, but I’m not sure now is the right time. I just…you know how I feel about you. My god, and my sister’s wedding is next week. Fuck fuck fuck.
NEW SELF raises hands to cover face in frustration.
(sniggers) Well, I should have known.
(pulling hands down face as she starts to blurt out) I love you! I’m sorry, no, I’m not sorry.
NEW SELF pauses.
This feels so terribly unreal. But I actually understand your reasons even though I wish I didn’t. Like, we talk about compromising and making more time for each other, but it never happens…and I never started taking out the trash and you never remembered to buy the gluten-free bread so that I can eat bread too.So generally, we’re not very good at keeping promises to each other. Are we bad lovers?
(bitterly) Classic. What do you want me to say? “Cool, thanks, bye?” Fuck off then. I don’t care. I shouldn’t have expected anything more. I’m wasting your time as usual. There’s nothing to say. Seriously. Go.
OLD SELF’s tone of voice suddenly turns timid and pleading.
No, no, no, no I’m sorry. Please? Please? I’m so stupid. Stay. Stay…
OLD SELF crouches on the ground, curling up in a ball and rocks back and forth.
Can we talk? You have to go? Oh, ok. Soon, then. No, no I think I’ll stay here for a bit actually. Bye…
NEW SELF’s hand reaches out into the distance wistfully, then slowly falls. She stands still for a moment and starts to crouch. But as though suddenly changing her mind, she turns around and walks away, out of the spotlight.
Spotlights dim to black.
Alissija is a young girl with an unusual job title: theatre spectator. For one year, she is paid to watch every single theatre production in Estonia, an experiment captured in director Marta Pulk’s A Year Full of Drama. Over 224 plays in 365 days, what will happen to Alissija? Is it possible to consume so much culture, and will art change her life?
The night before Alissija sees her first play, she vomits and passes out. But, coming out of the theatre, wide-eyed and still slightly pale she proclaims that “the performance gave me a new thirst for life”. Going to the theatre has been rejuvenating, elevating her out of her physical ailments. It’s a strong start to testing out the filmmakers’ theory about the impact of art on the individual, that is echoed throughout the film as Alissija gradually becomes more excited, and begins to have more dreams and aspirations for her life.
As Alissija moves through this exciting world of theatre, she also begins to feel a new sense of loneliness. Being a professional ‘theatre spectator’ is alienating because on the one hand her friends aren’t interested in discussing the depths of theatre with her, and on the other hand her thoughts are “too basic” for “real theatre people.” Her loneliness becomes amplified the more time she spends among the arts community, such as with drama school alumni who have all spent four years studying together, and now work in the same tight-knit industry. She is an inexperienced outsider: before this job, she had only seen two plays growing up. Belying these experiences is a social commentary on the insularity of culture. In theory, Pulk argues, the arts is for everyone — it is an activity that everyone can participate in. But in reality, it depends on access — financial, social, and educational means. Further, Alissija’s embarrassment around discussing her job as a ‘theatre spectator’ reveals the restrictive definitions of societal achievement and success. This is because in other jobs, she admits, it seems that “everyone else has achieved or learned something”. Her insecurity highlights the social pressure to conform to a particular vision of what a successful career looks like, and that this is again based on being able to access a certain level of education and wealth.
These gradual revelations and reflections of A Year Full of Drama emerge through its slice-of-life style, that plods along at the time-bound pace of Alissija’s year of theatre-spectating. In fact, it can feel like Pulk’s film lacks momentum in its compilation of documentary footage, slower than necessary, given that it is already operating within a precise framework determined by the enormous amount of plays Alissija is consuming. The structure of the documentary centres around the plays that Alissija watches, but unfolds into a much more life-sized narrative. Life happens as the cameras follow her around: she falls in love, fights with her brother over the phone, hitchhikes with a stranger, meets new people, goes through a break-up, loses her dreadlocks.
At times, Alissija’s ‘larger than life’ awakening as a result of being granted access to the world of arts and culture, becomes swallowed up by the events of her own life. Briefly, Alissija has a boyfriend and is smitten. On the bus, she talks to camera about how glad she is that the falling in love stage isn’t over yet; a scene shot from afar shows her hanging out with her boyfriend, hovering around each other and listening to music; then finally a grainy scene shot on webcam or phone from Alissija’s bedroom shows her in an anguished state of heartbreak. Pulk’s true-to-life style is evident here in the layering of varied filming techniques and perspectives to build this mini-narrative, drawing us closer to Alissija’s lived experiences as a young woman. The drama of her fling and its emotional journey override her intellectual and spiritual growth through the arts at points, and it is clear that Pulk highlights that both real-life and fictional immersion are crucial to developing her sense of self. There are other times, however, when the overly naturalistic style of the film, which reveals this daily duality of lived experience and art, takes precedence over the overall structuring of the film. While Pulk’s documentary style flourishes in its quotidian, organic nature as it leaves the camera on, this means it moves at a slower, at times, less engaging pace — which takes away from speaking its bigger themes to a wider audience.
It is through theatre-spectating that Alissija realises how much emotion she is able to experience through her response to theatre productions, and thus the sheer expanse of human feelings that emerge from art and life. And, in an uplifting finale, Alissija recognises what she wants for herself: to seek out a career where she is able to use her intellect, and so she enrols herself in a dramatic arts degree to pursue theatre directing. Art, it seems, has changed her life — personally and professionally. Sometimes Alissija goes about her everyday life, but at other times, art spills into her life like one melting pot. After all, going to the theatre is another way of seeking out new experiences, as Alissija finds herself on a constant journey of discovery and self-discovery. Though A Year of Drama falls short in compellability for its entire running time, it is still a joy to watch and consider, as Alissija’s experiences provide fragmented morsels of life. Indeed, the documentary’s title captures Alissija’s personal, lived experiences of life and culture well, for it is a year full of drama, literally and metaphorically, on and off-stage.
A Year Full of Drama screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.
Michelle Wang writes, dreams and eats in Sydney. That’s pretty much it aside from voraciously consuming most things with subtitles or featuring Adam Driver.