And just like that, IFC's Stranger Than Fiction's winter season ends and spring previews begin. Wednesday night boasted the likes of filmmaker Gillian Armstrong, who most identify with fiction films (Oscar and Lucinda, Charlotte Gray), visited IFC to screen her latest release in her longitudinal (30 years) look at three women's lives. Love, Lust & Lies (2010) is the fifth installment in Ms. Armstrong's documentary series about womens pursuit of happiness and how time changes perceptions of what happiness is. Told through through intimate portraits of Kerry, Diana and Josie who at 14 years of age in 1976 who Ms. Armstrong met at a Adelaide youth center. Ms. Armstrong was just 21 years of age herself when she began this project as a one off. Only later, she considered the possibility of a follow up and fund raised or it herself.
The most recent film finds these ladies at 47 years of age reflecting on their lives as well as looking forward. Love, Lust & Lies is set up so the first section is a recap of the previous installments. We meet the three ladies as teenagers. We see them play, put make-up on (bright blue 70's eye shadow!) discuss virginity, their marriage priorities and home life. It becomes apparent quickly that this is no 90210 area code (the original or redux). We're in Adelaide in the South Australia state of Australia. Turns out this city is predominantly working class and what the audience comes to understand pretty quickly, is this profoundly shapes their mind set and future.
From the get go, Kerry, Diana and Josie are far more focused on marriage and employment than their GPA and careers. We don't hear anything about finding their passions and talents - figuring out who they are. This is 1976 but there are no signs of a feminist movement. They're deep desire to get married and have children seem to become both blessings and obstacles. Children and husbands give them new families they obviously yearn for but also inhibits their freedoms quickly. Money is an underlying issue, which is probably partially why their dreams as young teenage women seem so limited. It's not just about the times, it's their economic social class that sets the bar lower. College isn't necessarily a practical consideration. Marriage seems the best bet to provide security but not just financial security. That's just part of it.
I found two main areas of the women's stories to be the most fascinating in Love, Lust Lies. The first is that two of the women told stories of life changing traumatic events in their childhood, while Kerry's upbringing seemed to have had more stability. Diana and Josie experienced troubled marriages. Diana had her first child (of many) as a single mother and eventually married three times. Josie ended a long marriage due to an affair with a former teenage crush and a child out of that affair. Later she also confessed to bouts with excessive drinking. Kerry's marriage remains intact and she appears to have the most steady and close relationship with her husband and children. The second area that I thought compelling ties closely in with the first. There is the theme of women's roles and what gets passed on generationally between women and what choices and behaviors get adopted. In other words, we as humans and as women grow, but don't you know it, history repeats itself.
Ms. Armstrong spends quite a bit of time with the lady's kids and at first it felt like a diversion I wasnt all that interested in. I never could keep track of who's kids were who's and never did track all of them. Since Diana and Josie had children early in life, quite a few of them are now grown and raising their own children. I eventually realized the point and the pattern Ms. Armstrong drew.
Through the lady's kids we can see what I mentioned above, especially in the females. The next generation marries and has children young and the women who left school early are already regretting their rush to get out. We heard Kerry, Diana and Josie say the same thing as young mothers. In the earliest segment there is definite tension between the young women and their parents. A generation later Kerry has a closer tie with her kids (no grandchildren yet) but Diana and Josie exhibit some stressful relationships with some of their offspring.
As most of us experience, the troubled times don't necessarily add up to an overall troubled life. Josie is portrayed as the one who has struggled the most, yet she remains cautiously optimistic, if a little broken. Diana still battles the pain of the difficult relationship with her mother as well as her eldest daughter, but she tries to focus on her husband and the rest of her family and in her day-to-day life she's cheerful. Kerry seems at peace. while we see her and Neil confront financial hardship, we also see that despite the hard times, they are still in love. By their 47th year we've seen an incredibly condensed version of three lives and through the trip, we witness their wisdom build as their mischievious girlishness remains and in many ways it's a look at what it is to be a woman.
If one were to read a short synopsis of their stories, one might see them as unremarkable, but Ms. Armstrong's portraits offer so much more. The most ordinary can become the most intriguing when seen through both the telling details and the big picture patterns of a life.
During Ms. Armstrong's talk back with Thom Powers following the STF screening, she talked about a film like this in comparison to a reality series. She made a point about how Kerry, Diana and Josie never had any aspirations to become reality stars (before or after the genre existed). They were just three ladies agreeing to let an audience in on their modest lives and no matter how sell known the series got, their existence largely remained common. Love, Lust & Lies isn't Celebrity Rehab, Teenage Mom or Survivor and that's a good thing. Their portraits represent human connectedness and the three woman have a humility that seems to be lacking in popular culture. One thing about a good longitudinal study such as Ms. Armstrong's or the 7-Up series is that an audience can get so invested in the characters and when a documentary series like this looks at every day people we realize the commonalities among us as well as what makes us individual. It's so simple in a way (although can you imagine how many hours of footage and cutting that adds up to?), but that's probably part of the reason it works.