Reverse Documentary

By Marisela Navarro

Dino is a documentary filmmaker, haunted by the ghost of his ex-girlfriend who was killed in a car crash while with another man. As Dino shoots his latest documentary on the vandalism occurring in the woods of his hometown, he tries to move on from her unexpected death. But when his life starts to look up, the ghost encroaches on his property. The focus of the film begins to blur as the lens of the camera shifts onto Dino, the director succumbing to his ghostly obsession.

The ghost was easy to see but hard to describe. An anonymous color, like the shine of a coin found in sunlight. Dino used this color to brighten the eye of a deer on the poster for his documentary. He didn’t speak to the ghost or talk about her to anyone. He assumed the ghost was Jennifer because he’d lived in the house alone for several years without any issues and because no one else he loved had died. His space was indoors, away from her. He didn’t acknowledge her existence (when he walked to his car in the driveway, when he checked the mail) though he knew she was there.

Inside the house, Dino spent his time studying an animated film. The film was about a tired chef who travels with her oven to another galaxy looking for companionship and purpose. The oven talks and bakes without gas or electricity. The film was mostly silent and animated in dark colors—browns, burgundy, and yellowed whites. There was a scene where an extraterrestrial places an object inside the oven while it sleeps. The morning—when the oven wakes and discovers he has charred the object—is Dino’s favorite scene. The expression of shame on the oven’s face is rendered perfectly. The window of the oven door collapses slightly. The black numbers on the knobs, his eyes, suddenly appear messy and amateurish, as though the animator had drawn them with a bleeding magic marker. He invariably thought of Jennifer when the oven’s moment came. The police had delivered the news of her death. She’d been in a car accident with another man. The news was confusing, as though it had happened many decades ago, to a stranger. Red sedan, the officers said, as though it was the most boring detail of the story, not the surprise twist.

The ghost showed up six months after Jennifer’s death, seven months before the film festival. She spent her time outside in Dino’s front yard. Trees bordered the property. There, in front of the fire pit, she built mud sculptures—Earth and Jupiter, a sleeping bear covered in grass, a baby elephant, a book with raised words, a naked woman with patches of lichen. Beyond that was the road where the neighbor’s dog sometimes loitered. The dog came by during daylight when the ghost didn’t shine as strong.

Dino filmed part of his documentary in an abandoned building, five stories tall with an iron spiral staircase that led to the roof. The film did not feature an ashamed oven; it was about vandalism in the woods. He shone an LED light on Wade for the interview. Wade had a good face for film: calm blue eyes, a satiny forehead. A rugged beard and blond hair like trampled reed grass. He wore jeans and a T-shirt and drank from a water bottle.

VideoFADE UP Forest MEDIUM SHOT Trunk and vasculature of branches painted white with repeating pattern of black antennas. Trunk with letters “RBER” looped thickly in orange.CLOSE-UP Soil.  MS Wade sitting in armchair on roof, touching beard. Black sky behind him.AudioMUSIC UP Solo violin VOICE OVERThe graffiti on the trees is escalating. The excess is being deposited in the soil: fine, bright purple and yellow grains as if someone has coughed up rare sugar.

“There’s a girl I want you to meet,” Wade said. His thumb twitched in the shot. Dino kept the film rolling. “My cousin Alexis. She moved here a few weeks ago. I think you’d like the things she says.”

“Her new hobby is pertinent to this film, though it’s not exactly a hobby,” Wade continued. “She’s been washing the paint off the tree trunks.”

“What did she come here for?”

“Why does anyone go anywhere? To have a place to go back to.” Wade took a long sip of water and stared directly into the camera. “Tell me how Jennifer left you.”

This was a reverse documentary. Sometimes Dino answered the questions.

“She didn’t leave me,” Dino said. “She cheated on me. The police told me. They said she was dead and explained the circumstances. I never met the man she was with in the car.”

“Do you ever think about approaching him?”

“I’ve thought about it. I’ve pictured myself sitting at a table across from him.”

“What would you say to him?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’d say anything. I’d just look at him and see.”

“See what?”

Dino stopped rolling and stepped to the side of the camera. “I’d like to ask Alexis how she washes the trees. I’d like to film her doing it.”

“Good. She’s a nice girl,” Wade said.

Wade was a historian. He was an expert in whatever Dino needed and accompanied Dino on set. He’d been working on an anthology of old photographs from several forest conservation societies and encouraged Dino to take on the task of filming the documentary when the vandalism began more than a year ago. Dino applied for a grant from a fund that supported social and environmental films. He’d produced independent documentaries in the past, mostly biographies on local celebrities (the mayor; the owner of a two-hundred-year-old house). After Jennifer’s death, he’d needed a distraction; something contemporary, uncomplicated.

But then Wade started asking Dino personal questions on camera. At first Dino felt uncomfortable. He was used to prying questions, it was part of his job, but he’d never been on the receiving end of them. There was something fitting about Wade’s deflections, though—that point on how the artist can never be completely removed from the frame. Dino was unsure of how his life was affecting the film. He felt a pull to respond, as though speaking would help to clarify things. He could always cut the audio later.

VideoMS Tree warden standing in front of tree. 
SUBTITLE: Autumn 2015    CU Branches painted as plaited rope.    
MS Workers felling tree. Branches tumbling down.    
 Camera shakes. CU Dino’s feet in sneakers, standing in red soil.
Tree warden Hoyt Sherman has ordered the removal of a diseased oak, known by locals as the Roper. 

FX: Worker’s chainsaw HOYT
SHERMAN Trees have tiny openings called lenticels, kind of like human nostrils. When they’re clogged with paint, they can’t breathe. 

WADE Why did you avoid Jennifer’s mother at the funeral? FX: Chainsaw fades out. 

DINOI didn’t know what to say to her. I didn’t want to deal with seeing my girlfriend’s mother survive. I didn’t want to be a visitor at her house or be her ally. I didn’t want her to remember to call me.

Dino took Alexis on a walk through the woods. She wore brown shorts and hiking boots with socks pulled up mid-calf. A yellow braid curled inside the hood of her sweatshirt. Her forehead was like Wade’s, abruptly sloped and satiny. Dino offered her gum, but she said she didn’t like peppermint.

“So what flavor toothpaste do you use?” he said.

“Strawberry,” she said.

They didn’t say much else for a while. In a bucket she mixed a soil plaster, then she covered the painted trees with it. She scrubbed the old trees with a wire brush, soap, and water. He asked her how she knew which tree needed what and she said it wasn’t scientific; when her hand got tired, she switched to a different method. He filmed her washing the bright peach face of a baby wearing sunglasses off the bark. It took her twenty minutes.

“How long have you been fighting vandalism?” he said.

“Four days. Wade has been talking about the film. I haven’t been able to find a job yet, so I decided to make myself useful.”

They took a break against an unpainted tree. Dino pulled out sandwiches and two bottles of beer from his backpack. Alexis was a messy eater (mustard everywhere) but he liked it.

She didn’t care about impressions, didn’t wipe the mustard from her mouth or hands while eating her sandwich. She held her beer with slippery fingers, and with yellow lips told Dino this bizarre story: When she was seventeen, a man with pale blue skin walked into the movie theater where she worked. It was just before Halloween, but the man was alone and dressed in regular clothes. The blue resembled real skin, not makeup, and he had a decent haircut. He handed Alexis a ten-dollar bill with words scribbled in black ink along the margins. She couldn’t read the language, although there was one English word, “catalysis,” mixed into one of the sentences. She stole the bill and studied it, tried to decipher the language. Over the years she sent photos of it to professional linguists, but everyone told her the words were gibberish. She didn’t believe them. Sometimes, she read the words like a chant or a spell and waited for bad things to happen.

“Do you believe in coincidences?” she said.

“I believe they’re random, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “Do you mean to ask if I believe in fate?” He pulled her hand away from her sandwich and wiped it with a napkin.

“What I mean is, do you think absolutely anything can happen?”

“Yes,” he said. “There’s something happening right now.”

“What’s that?” She leaned close to him and smiled, her eyes wide blue boats.

“I live with a ghost.”

“Your place is haunted?”

“No, it’s not haunted. The ghost just hangs out in the yard. Like a landscaper. I think it’s my ex-girlfriend.”

She straightened herself and seemed to be processing the information. She took a sip of her beer, then pointed her finger at him. “How do you know the ghost is female?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does she get jealous?”

“I don’t know. I don’t talk to her. She’s a sculptor. My ex was an artist, not a sculptor, but she painted realistic scenes of animals and people in nature.”

Alexis set down her beer. “Take me to your house,” she said.

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