Documenting the Public and Private Lives of Public and Private Artists

Is it possible to explore the life of artists while respecting their privacy?


In the 17th and 18th centuries — and no doubt before then, too — women writers’ work was largely disregarded. Instead of their male peers and the public being interested in the poetry of Mary Leapor or the innovative and form-changing writing of Eliza Haywood, their readership was more concerned with the private lives of these artists rather than the skill, creativity, and intelligence that went into their written work. With writers’ identities, such as Elena Ferrante’s, recently being “revealed” in an invasive attack on their privacy, it’s clear the problem of a public’s obsession over the private lives of public artists remains in 21st century culture.

Ferrante has described that when you are a woman writer the “personal is political,” with the author explaining her choice of anonymity-through-pseudonym as a liberation from the “anxiety of notoriety.” The very fact Ferrante even has to explain her choice for anonymity is proof itself of this century’s obsession with knowing what is hidden from us; the preoccupation with the concealed private life versus the presented public representation shows an audiences’ desire to connect the lives of the private person with their work as a public artist. And this confliction isn’t just seen with novels and novelists, but within the film industry too.

From adapting interviews and tapes between writers in The End of the Tour, a film reenacting the conversations between David Lipsky and the self-effacing writer David Foster Wallace, to biopics including The Imitation Game, Steve Jobs, and most recently Jackie, the idea that once an artist has passed their life is able to be portrayed to the public for all to interpret and criticize becomes apparent. Aside from the complex and problematic conversations surrounding his depiction as the ‘tortured writer’ trope, the friends and family of Wallace rejected the “anti-biopic,” with one friend stating how the writer would have “howled the idea for it out of the room had it been suggested while he was living.”

Meanwhile, films such as The Imitation Game and Steve Jobs present somewhat skewed depictions of their protagonists, and while they are fictional films subject to the artistic interpretations of the director/screenwriter/actor, the titular character of a fictional film like Steve Jobs is still a real person, with a facet (as dramatized as it is) of their private life represented onscreen.

However, it’s in documentary films where the lives of artists are explored in more detail, creating a complex dynamic between the artist portrayed versus the filmmaker and their audience. Documentary’s desire to depict some form of the truth, despite the fact that it’s a truth constructed by the hands of artists behind a camera, is central to this complexity; audiences are left to ask how much the director has left their mark on the already constructed world of the artist they are exploring.

There’s Werner Herzog, who repeatedly emphasizes “not to be a fly on the wall but a hornet that stings;” Louis Theroux’s drawn-back gentle nature to his subjects coincides with his self-description as being a “neutral person, without baggage” on screen; and the director of One More Time with Feeling, a documentary exploring grief and art after a father’s son passing away, says that he had no control over the final cut of the film — it was down to the subject being portrayed.

In Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a documentary exploring the life of Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the director renders himself invisible. With both still and moving images of Bergman appearing onscreen over narration of her diary entries read by fellow Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, the film adheres to the second part of its title. With Björkman using Bergman’s own words to tell the story with videos and images from her films and home life, the director blends the public and private of her world into one.

Moreover, it’s almost as if the director addresses this conflicting dichotomy of peering into an artist’s private life when their public work is still available: Bergman’s children — Pia Lindström, Renato Roberto Giusto Giuseppe Rossellini, Ingrid Rossellini, and Isabella Rossellini — each discuss how their mother was a private woman, noting she was more a friend to them than a mother; a passage from Bergman’s diary entry shows the actress writing about her private nature; and when working with Roberto Rossellini, Bergman notes (again in her diary) how she is not suited for the spontaneous, unscripted style of acting and filmmaking Rossellini is known for.

Her desire for privacy transcends the film itself and leaves us with the questions of whether it is right to delve into the private lives of private artists and make them public, or whether we should release and publish their extremely personal diaries. In the case of Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, the involvement of Bergman’s own family — the living reflections of the artist — suggest this is a film not aiming to reveal or expose a person’s private life but instead share it with her intended audience. Björkman’s thoughtful directing and editor Dominika Daubenbüchel’s focus on emotion over constructed narrative solidifies this film’s respectful approach to a documentation of Bergman.

Meanwhile, Brett Morgan’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Asif Kapadia’s Amy use personal footage, tapes, and diary entries in order to tell the stories of each respective singer-songwriter, yet it almost feels as if their writing — their lives — were always public due to their deeply personal lyrics. In Amy, Kapadia uses Amy Winehouse’s lyrics to present the emotional side of the part of Amy’s life being presented onscreen. Lyrics such as “Me and my head dry / and my tears dry / get on without my guy” or “that silence of content / that everyone gets / just disappears / as soon as the sun sets” fade on and offscreen in a handwritten style after her boyfriend has left her and once her drug and alcohol addiction has been established, emphasizing the inseparable ties between her private and public life. Likewise, Montage of Heck finds it impossible to separate the lyrics Cobain writes from his own troubled life, with passages from his diary mirroring the Nirvana song playing over it and his drawings animated and come to life.

It’s clear that both documentaries exploring these musicians presents the artist, rather than the film, with the conflicting problematic nature of the public and private lives of artists. Both artists were extremely private and weary of the spotlight, yet both bared their souls in their highly public songs. Like with Bergman’s children’s interviews for In Her Own Words, Montage of Heck and Amy present artists who just want to share art with the world — to relate. Unfortunately, in this world sharing art means sharing yourself too, and for some artists this is too much of an intrusion into their lives; Amy and Montage of Heck could only ever be made after their subjects’ deaths, with both documentaries using the merging of public lyrics with private feelings to create a perfect balance that enables the viewer to focus on their thought-provoking, universal art, rather than their deaths.

Where In Her Own Words and Montage of Heck are both approved by the families of the documentaries’ subjects (the latter is also co-executive produced by Cobain’s only child, Frances Bean Cobain), upon release Amy was deemed a “disgrace” by her father, claiming there were “untruths” within the film. While the approval of the subjects’ relatives may be deemed vital for some filmmakers and audiences, through the disapproval of the artist’s estate it makes it clear for audiences that the depiction is simply a depiction, something that can be redone. As Cobain says in a scene from Montage of Heck: “it’s just a song.” If Amy’s father denounced her music, does that mean she should have stopped writing?

Carol Morley’s documentary about Joyce Vincent, a woman who died in her home and was left there for three years with the TV still on, has the opposite problem to Amy. Rather than faced with the problem of whether the family approves, or of whether there could be too much intrusion into Vincent’s life, Dreams of a Life instead has to piece together the life of Vincent through people she knew. As the title suggests, Vincent has no dichotomy between a public and private life; she is simply left with existence. Yet through her documentary, Morley creates a posthumous story that turns into art itself with the viewers able to relate to the forgotten Vincent through a collective and shared loneliness.

In the more recent David Bowie: The Last Five Years, a documentary that looks back at the career of a defining artist and icon, director Francis Whately uses Bowie’s voice from interviews and talking head shots of Bowie’s friends to add another dimension to the artist. And as for documentaries about living artists, the films are almost always focused solely on the current and previous work the artist does rather than their real-life world that inevitably has implications within their art.

In Mami Sunada’s documentary about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, she focuses on the craft Miyazaki puts into his work and his almost ethereal, magic persona that has been created by and for him through his fans. Sunada has no pre-occupation with his private life — for example his relationship with his parents, or what he does in his free time — and instead leaves these private occupations to Miyazaki to bring up. When he does briefly go into his private life, the stories, for example a letter from an elderly man about how Miyazaki’s father helped him in the war , almost always find themselves within the director’s films. What The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness shows us, then, is that documentaries about dead artists are focused on their life and how it affects their art; documentaries in which the artists are still living focus solely on the work of the artist, with the artist providing their own anecdotes into their private lives. What’s clear with both kinds of films is that the artist’s private life can always be found in their work.

To return to One More Time With Feeling, the director Andrew Dominik describes his involvement in the film by often stating he felt like he was intruding. He says of the film’s style — 3D and black and white — that “the basic idea was that the 3D was involving and the black and white is distancing and it gives you a way to kind of see the world with new eyes.” The director has the audience in mind here, emphasizing One More Time With Feeling’s attempt at drawing the viewer away from Nick Cave’s very specific and heartbreaking grief, and turning it into a universal grief that people can relate to.

Despite the array of documentaries about both living and deceased artists, the answer to whether we can truly explore the life of an artist while respecting their private lives remains unanswered. A conflict is present in the audience’s mind when watching a film like Montage of Heck or In Her Own Words: knowing the diary entries, the tape recordings, and the inner thoughts of these artists’ minds allows us to understand the work and craft that goes into their art, yet at the same time we are ultimately intruding — the art should be enough.