Lana Wilson perfects the art of a documentary

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

With only three films already under her belt, Wilson is already an Emmy-winning and Spirit-award nominated director, writer, and producer.

To many film viewers, Lana Wilson might seem like a relatively new name. Her third and latest documentary, Miss Americana (2020), has been quite popular since its Netflix release a few months ago. Now, one could chalk all that hype up to the film’s subject, famous pop singer Taylor Swift. But I’d argue that while Swift may draw the audience in, Wilson holds their attention with her ability to capture the essence of her subjects while keeping an unblinking lens on their story. Wilson has accomplished this not once, but three times, and I have no doubt she will continue to create fine documentaries that cover interesting and important issues while presenting its subjects as the real, feeling, conflicted people they are.

MISS AMERICANA

Premiering on the opening night of the Sundance 2020 Film Festival, Miss Americana takes a look into Taylor Swift’s life both in and out of the spotlight. The documentary catches Swift in some of her most vulnerable moments — a rare feat considering the fact that the singer hadn’t done any sort of interviews for three years prior. In an FF2 interview with Wilson herself, the director states that “the most challenging part [of the filming process] was building trust.” Taking into account the flood of negative press Swift had received in previous years, Wilson understood why the singer might be rather guarded initially. 

But Miss Americana is anything but guarded. Wilson does not interview Swift, but rather engages in dialogue with her, as a friend might. Sitting cross-legged by her window, Swift realizes aloud that she has spent all her life feeling that she needed to be the perfect, polite, talented little girl that she was molded to be from a young age. Upon release, Miss Americana fueled conversations about eating disorders, self-esteem, the toxicity of internet culture, double standards for women, and sexual assault.

Wilson believes that seeing the storytelling approach in her earlier work probably eased Swift’s apprehension, and after having seen her first two documentaries, I couldn’t agree more. Moving backwards, Independent Spirit Award-nominated documentary, The Departure (2017), is probably my favorite film of hers. Wilson’s sophomore film details the life of a Buddhist priest in Japan, Ittetsu Nemoto, who has dedicated his life to rehabilitating suicidal individuals. Nemoto draws on the energy of his own rebellious youth to create unconventional games and exercises in movement for his patients. You can read a full review of the film HERE. 

Lana Wilson directs THE DEPARTURE

Premiering at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, The Departure has since garnered universal acclaim for the tender way in which it explores life and death. I was lucky enough to attend a screening with Wilson there herself, who noted how important it was to her to not only respect the Japanese culture she was entering, but to treat Nemoto’s patients with compassion, respect, and with non-judging eyes, both from her and the camera itself. 

Wilson’s ability to make her subject feel at ease is not lost on me, especially in her first documentary, After Tiller (2013), which went on to win an Emmy for Best Documentary. After physician and third-trimester-abortion provider George Tiller was murdered by Pro-Life activists in 2009, only four late-term abortion providers were left. Wilson explores not only their lives as possibly the most-targeted physicians in the country, but the lives of the women seeking those abortions. As someone who knew little about Tiller and the legacy he left, I was both fascinated by and afraid for these brave abortion providers. 

AFTER TILLER

I felt an even greater empathy mingled with sadness by the testimonies of the women choosing to end their pregnancies. Whether it be a diagnosis that would mean a terrible life for the child or the knowledge that they didn’t have the means to take care of their baby, these women needed these abortions. Wilson manages to capture their stories, their torment, the difficulty of making such a decision, while taking us deep into one of the country’s most emotionally charged and controversial issues. 

Wilson continues to impress me with her candid approach to storytelling. She manages to enter very intimate spaces with her camera and blend into the background, allowing her subjects the space to open up about their struggles. With a wonderful sensitivity to the very painful and delicate balance of issues they face – the choice to abort, thoughts of suicide, low self-esteem – Wilson remains respectful and compassionate. Even while filming the hands and laps of abortion patients to keep their identities hidden, she succeeds in eliminating barriers between the audience and the person on the screen.

You can watch Miss Americana on Netflix and you can rent The Departure on Amazon. After Tiller is available on tubitv.com. 

© Roza Melkumyan (5/18/20) FF2 Media

THE DEPARTURE

Photo credits: Taylor Swift | ABC News | Netflix | Candescent Films 

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