Intimate Distances

[…] Distant image and intimate sound are summarized in our perception, where the bodies of Martha and the casted people shape a peculiar “cinema-body”.

[…] The power asymmetry that has been enhanced by the film-maker reveals us as cinema-makers.

[…] I think that there is a “distant intimacy” between making cinema and making criminals.


There is a bad story one can tell in order to comment on Philipp Warnell’s Intimate Distances: a small white woman walks along the pavements of the multicultural Astoria, Queens, New York, to cast big men for the role of a criminal. She approaches them without telling them her casting intentions, uses her apparent harmlessness to lead a psychological interrogation, pushing them into the situation of a confession. A distant yet  powerful candid camera, sometime supported by a second handy camera on the road, spies all of this while “stealing” the voices of the interrogees, without them knowing. The unbalanced power relationship of casting is thereby doubled, enhanced by the camera/spectators’ asymmetry of seeing without being seen, which not only amounts to image voyeurism but also seizes the voices that convey intimate confessions. Technology at the service of theft and power asymmetry! With this story I could see the reasons for my irritation about Intimate Distances.

There is also a good story one can tell though: in a short time, a sensitive woman is able to create precious moments of exchange with passers-by, breaking the anonymity that reigns in Western cities. The dialogues sometime overcome the level of polite small talk and become the occasion for a real confrontation on existential topics, where the met persons can discover the relief of an unexpected confession. These deeply human encounters are witnessed by a distant, respectful camera, which seems to focus more on the public context than on the people, thus reminding the spectators how these touching moments are not the result of a privileged and exclusive situation, but should be accessible to everyone. Therefore, the images work as a liberator of humanity.

Phillip Warnell’s essay about Martha Wollner’s performance on the road proposes an initial moment of dramaturgic hesitation: it takes long minutes before she can meet someone. This is the time where boredom and curiosity get mixed up and demand an active position for the spectator. Intimate Distances is (also) a film on the spectator’s perception. The irritation of distance – the bad story – and the humanity of intimacy – the good story – connotate the story of the spectator’s perception. At the core of this story we find the dispositive of a gap (but not a temporal lag) of image and sound – and our perception and our reflection on this dispositive. Distant image and intimate sound are summarized in our perception, where the bodies of Martha and the casted people shape a peculiar “cinema-body”. Here the city becomes part of the inner landscape of the speaking bodies (also thanks to the wonderful soundscape created by Philippe Ciompi), and at the same time their emotions and their stories are scattered on the mobile exteriority of those little bodies on the screen.

However, the unease of our asymmetric position of power as spectators continues to disturb the intriguing experience of this peculiar cinema-body. In this position, we are the only possible makers of this cinema-body. Only from this privileged point of view can such a mixture of (partially) disembodied voices and hyperanimated bodies exist – hyperanimated in the sense of having an increase of “anima” (soul) thanks to the voice superposition. In Intimate Distances we have the interesting experience of this cinema-body, but at the same time we cannot but face the fact that the condition of possibility for this experience is our demiurgic situation of being the makers of this cinema-body. The power asymmetry that has been enhanced by the film-maker reveals us as cinema-makers.

Did Martha finally cast someone? The question should not be taken as rhetoric, for a crime has titillated our curiosity throughout the film. An indirect crime, actually, because we could only project the imagination of a crime on the future film where the casted person would embody the criminal. Moreover, we also project the “criminality” on the passers-by in our accompanying Martha in her job. Insofar as the apparent concentration of Intimate Distances is on the process of casting instead of the final choice in casting, we will focus on our projection of criminality on people more than on the effective aptitude the persons could have in expressing criminality. In this way, we are not only aware of being the cinema-makers but also of being the makers of criminals.

I think that there is a “distant intimacy” between making cinema and making criminals. For every theatrical representation orbits around a deed, a relevant deed; and if we should cast a deed that is good for cinema (as far as cinema continues to have an incestuous intercourse with theatre), crime will obviously remain one of the best candidates. Is cinema thus criminal? Phillip Warnell displays an intriguing sentence during the film: «All that is unintelligible is criminal in substance». Yes, unintelligibility is certainly a motor for essayistic cinema. Therefore, Intimate Distances is a criminal piece of cinema. 



Caméra candide ? Non, mais celle de la violence liée au vol. La caméra en plongée, au très long téléobjectif, est en action, dans la tradition de la caméra cachée des shows télévisuels ; est posée ainsi la question habituelle de l’éthique du point de vue. Celle-ci n’est pas abordée, à en croire le film, puisque les personnes rencontrées ne sont pas informées qu’elles sont filmées et enregistrées. Mises en confiance par cette femme aux cheveux blancs, dont on ne se sait rien (cette femme, sait-on sans informations glanées hors du film, qu’elle fait du casting pour un film, qu’elle cherche un homme de mauvaise fréquentation ?), ils livrent une parole personnelle, pour partie intime, mais ne relevant pas de la confession ; la performance est assez impressionnante, y compris les récits des prisonniers en off (les SMS incrustés sur l’image, moins !). Mais le malaise lié au filmage de ces présences volées noie le film, mine son ambition.


Intimate Distances is a film about sound and vision; that is, a film about film. It addresses the very question of what watching a film means. There are at least two ways of watching Intimate Distances: a “focused” one, which focuses on sound, and a “defocused” one, which focuses on images. In the first one, your gaze is guided by sound - you only watch the portion of the frame that is relevant to following the story of Martha Wollner. In the second one, you free your gaze from sound. You do not pay attention to the discussions between Martha Wollner and passers-by anymore, and focus on the whole frame. You are now watching a different film: not an essay about Martha Wollner’s performance, but about how people walk on the streets of Queens. Intimate Distances is ultimately a film about the infinity of stories that one can discover within the same frame. 



Intimate Distances | Film | Phillip Warnell | USA-UK 2020 | 61’ | Visions du Réel 2020, Burning Lights

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First published: April 26, 2020