It started with a question, states Boris Gerrets in one of many ‘title cards’ that read like text messages throughout his lo-fi ‘mobile phone camera’ film, People I Could Have Been and Maybe Am. What would it be like to enter into the life of a complete stranger? We’ve all done it before, drifted through the hustle and bustle of a congested city and daydreamed our way into another’s life. The difference is Gerrets is not daydreaming, he actually barged his way, though gracefully, into the lives of his two characters: Sandrine, a Brazilian beauty who left her son back home to find a ‘provider’ in one of her many lovers, and Steve, a kind-hearted drug addict and cripple who spends most of his time begging on unappealing sidewalks. Both are lost souls the director encountered in the crevices of London. As another title card reads: “There is one life we imagine living and another one we really live.” Musings such as these, ordered among other questions and points of narrative stitch the film together, between colliding images of the city in transient places – through train windows, from the meditative pulse of the Underground, in taxis, cafés, parks and hotel rooms – like glimpses of a daydream. But who is really dreaming? Director, subject, or us? Or are we one and the same?
The inter-play between imagination and reality, between fact and fiction, sustains the dynamic of Gerrets’ film. Another title cards reads, “Sometimes imagination and reality collide, but very, very rarely.” There is no precursor to how he met his characters, or why these two
individuals are the chosen focus, and why he has gained their trust. Their lives are not tailored to meet any obvious narrative constraints Gerrets has put in place, nor are their lives incredibly ‘special’ – they are anybody and everybody – people Boris Gerrets, or any of us, could be.
What makes these characters singular, present and ‘special’, however, is the filmmaker’s relationship to them, how he is drawn into their lives and they into his – and how, with a simple device all of us carry in our pockets, he is able to break through the wall of anonymity so common to the metropolis. It also allows us, the audience, to imagine ourselves then as Boris Gerrets, with a potential to be a filmmaker at any moment, armed with mobile media. And it is precisely the mode of production characteristic to a mobile phone camera that gives Gerrets’ film a sense of voyeurism, especially through the darkness that surrounds the majority of its landscape in the grainy phone images that capture the absence of light.
But just as Gerrets’ mobile camera provides the reason to approach his subjects to make his film, creating a humane and fragile space of intimacy and confession, so does it distance him personally from truly knowing his characters and involving himself in their lives. No matter how small the camera – and with virtually no crew at his side – Gerrets is always the author at a distance, an intruder on the moment. “Filming creates one moment while it destroys another one,” Gerrets has said in a statement about the film.
He does, however, manage the reality he is given with gentle sincerity, befriending the outsiders Sandrine and Steve as one who is also lost adrift in the sea of urban bodies. And perhaps that’s why people like Sandrine and Steve surfaced among the crowd and seeped into the parameters of Gerrets’ film, because they are lonely and broken – because, as Gerrets writes in another title card, Most of the time the city is in my head, and he scurries about it feeling detached.
People I Could Have Been and Maybe Am is a film about the slippery boundary between a filmmaker and his subject. Though at moments throughout People… these paradigms find their forms – for example, when Gerrets encourages Steve to unite with his estranged daughter, or when he offers himself, and his camera, as a careful listener to Sandrine as she laments over her lost lovers and her beloved son in Brazil – Gerrets does something incredibly bold, leaving himself vulnerable as a director ‘in control’. He gets physically intimate with Sandrine, confessing that the sheer act of filming ‘turned up the heat’ for both ‘filmer’ and ‘filmee’. We’re not sure how far it goes, but as the title card states, Boris fell in love. And the next shot we see is the moment after – Sandrine lays on the bed in her lacy pink underwear while Boris sits upright on the edge, shirtless and rubbing his eyes.
Then he loses them. Sandrine moves back to Brazil to be with her son, and Steve, after finding love with a poet named Precious, who later leaves him for another man before dying of causes unrevealed, gets sucked back into the London streets, back into the anonymity from whence he came. And we are left wondering if Boris Gerrets – director, voyeur, friend and mentor – is responsible for anything that took place within the camera’s space, or just outside of it? Can he drift out of one’s life just as abruptly as he barged into it? There were repercussions, as Gerrets notes in the title cards. His story started to falter when the characters went astray and complications occurred because, ultimately, Gerrets is part of their cinematic life – unable to merely stand outside while restricted from stepping closer.