«It’s the strangest kind of documentary where the main character was not real but everybody else was», says Eugene Richards about his new film Thy Kingdom Come.
I am always looking for moments in art where reality and fiction intertwine; where scripted and unscripted elements are melding one into another; where other conventional limits of visual representation have been transcended. Eugene Richards’ film Thy Kingdom Come is one of these moments. «It’s the strangest kind of documentary where the main character was not real but everybody else was,» says Eugene Richards in the interview accompanying his retrospective exhibition Eugene Richards: The Run-On of Time at the ICP Museum in New York.
Photographs from the heart
Richards is the award-winning photographer whose work is often compared to the subjective approach of Robert Frank and the photographic essays of W. Eugene Smith. He often worked as a photojournalist and has, as Truls Lie asserts in his MTR article «The Knot in the Heart,» developed his own style in his unique closeness to his objects. His photographs – whether from an operation room in an emergency wing or from inside a psychiatric hospital in Mexico – are motivated by his honest concern for others.
The film is composed of the footage Richards shot seven years ago while he was working on the Terence Malik’s fiction film To the Wonder.
Early in his career, while living in eastern Arkansas, he helped found the newspaper Many Voices, aiming to shed light on the dire conditions of black people in America. Photographs from that time became his first monograph Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta. In Thy Kingdom Come he gives voice to the largely invisible common people of contemporary America: a cancer patient suffering from unbearable pain; a depressed drug addict; a mother who’s older child accidentally killed her younger one; an obese woman who was brutally abused as a child; a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. In the words of Javier Bardem, who plays the fictional role of the priest in the documentary: «Is this a true story? Yes, I would say so. Is the priest a real priest? No, but it’s as if they were waiting for him.»
The film is composed of the footage Richards shot seven years ago while he was working on the Terence Malik’s fiction film To the Wonder. His job was to find local residents of a small town in Oklahoma who would be open to appearing in Malik’s movie and film them talking to the movie’s character of the priest. They were then to take that footage and produce short vignettes that might later be woven into the final production. But, explains Richards, «When people started talking, they kept talking and talking. They all knew that he (Bardem) was an actor but that didn’t change the thing, they wanted to tell their story.» Thus, Richards recorded much more footage than needed for the Malik film, and when he was granted the rights for the footage he made a film of his own.
A world familiar yet unknown
Richards, along with Thy Kingdom Come’s editor Sam Richards, organised individual stories into sequences that partly intertwine. Bardem is present in each of them, dressed as a priest, acting as a priest, but remaining in the background. What makes the film truly extraordinary is the visual perspective created by the camera being positioned below eye level.
Because the shots do not mimic «natural» perspective, we are faced with a world familiar and yet unknown.
Richards keeps the recording device away from the subject’s sightlines, allowing the gaze between Bardem and the subjects to remain undisturbed. The camera becomes an extension of the hand instead of the eye. The viewer remains close to the subject’s faces, while the low-angle shots indicate respect and affection. Simultaneously, one can see the immediate surroundings – not only people’s faces but their hands or feet, even toys, cushions and blankets, the agenda in the priests’ hands. The camera hardly moves and the objects often obstruct the frame, bringing visual representation closer to experience.
Because the shots do not mimic «natural» perspective, we are faced with a world familiar and yet unknown – discontinuous, fragmented, transitional. I wouldn’t want to spoil the viewer’s pleasure by revealing too much, so let me just say that not all the subjects are ready to open up to the priest. They all try to explain their situation by talking about their past, and they all have hope for eventual redemption: thy kingdom come. But by far the most surprising thing in the narrations is not the subjects’ hope but rather the violence that surrounds them. The film’s fragmented vision makes this almost tangible.