How Asif Kapadia turned paparazzi shots and candid home videos into art in 'Amy'

Deepanjana Pal

Jul 11, 2015 12:19:41 IST

Early in Asif Kapadia's poignant documentary Amy, you may find yourself saying a silent prayer of thanks for digital technology. It made cameras and videos cheap and accessible, which in turn marked the beginning of the socially-acceptable narcissism that has culminated in 'selfie' entering the Oxford English Dictionary.

Had the digital age dawned a little later, we may not have had the images that we see of the teenaged Amy Winehouse in Kapadia's documentary. She's 14, without the beehive bouffant and dramatic eyeliner that would become her trademark. She looks petite, but not as slight and fragile as she would in her twenties. She has pimples and a big, toothy smile. Her eyes are alive — light, mischief, curiosity and melancholia glinting in them as she looks straight into the camera lens.

It's not as though Winehouse isn't performing in these early photos and videos. Sometimes, it's an actual show, like when she mimics Marilyn Monroe and croons "Happy Birthday" while licking a lollipop with that unsettling combination of naïveté and sexuality.

Elsewhere, everything appears to be candid yet Winehouse is playing a part: that of a happy, carefree North London girl, hanging out with her friends. These friends are as much part of the act. Just as she is hiding darkness under the bright, shiny laughter, so are they. They're determined to create an alternative reality in these camcorder moments. It's only just before a video ends or when they think that the camera is focused on someone else that you glimpse a bleakness in Winehouse and her friend's faces.

As Kapadia tells it, Winehouse's story in Amy conforms to almost every modern stereotype that you can list. She's a troubled, vulnerable genius. As a child, she sees her parents' marriage break down and it leaves her with a lingering insecurity and longing for a strong, father figure, which in turn pushes her into abusive relationships.

As a teenager, she channels her insecurities into poetry and starts writing songs. Convinced she's fat, Winehouse becomes bulimic and even though her parents know she's throwing up her food, no one intervenes. Then come the drugs and the binge-drinking and Winehouse is on the self-destructive spiral that has both claimed and been romanticised by the likes of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. She's a money-making machine for some, like her father and her manager. For others, she's someone they'd prefer not to look at because it's too painful to watch her implode.

It's a litany of clichés, but Kapadia's documentary doesn't feel shallow. The film is moving, intense and frequently uncomfortable. It connects with viewers emotion because of Kapadia's brilliant use of available footage. Amy is both an ode to the visual culture of the millennial era as well as an unwitting reminder that there are limitations to the show-not-tell approach.

Pictures may speak a thousand words — and they often do in Amy — but when it comes to insight, you still need a storyteller to interpret these images and use words to truly recreate the complexity of real life and real people. It's on the second count that Amy stumbles. We don't really get past Winehouse's facades and understand her, even though we feel for her deeply.

But in the way it uses images, Kapadia's documentary is masterful. The director makes sure that the audience is constantly looking at the singer. There's barely a second of Amy when she isn't on screen, looking at you, singing to you, smiling at you, hiding from you, posing for you — and every shot acts as a reminder that this woman is no longer alive.

There are primarily two kinds of footage that Kapadia uses in Amy: candid camcorder moments and paparazzi shots. They're at two ends of the privacy spectrum. The first is intimate and consensual. The second is invasive and harsh. As Winehouse becomes increasingly famous, the home videos and amateur imagery slip out and we see professional footage, ranging from multi-camera shoots of live performances to tabloid shots.

You'd think that the real Amy Winehouse would be present in the home videos. Though it's true that those early images seem less affected, there's an uncomfortable prickle as Kapadia walks you through Winehouse's last years. Because suddenly you realise that those horrible paparazzi shots are actually more of a window to Winehouse's troubled and ravaged soul than the photographs her friends and family took of her.

How Asif Kapadia turned paparazzi shots and candid home videos into art in Amy

Amy winehouse. Reuters.

Whether or not you know of Winehouse's short but eventful life, there are paparazzi images that Kapadia uses in Amy that will make you cringe. You will find yourself twitching with discomfort at the shots of the slight and fragile Winehouse walking while being lit by the brutal, pulsing light of relentless camera flashes. One of the snippets Kapadia uses in his documentary shows the footage from a camera that was trained on Winehouse when she went to visit her ex-husband in prison.

The camera follows her as she comes out of the car, walks to the gate and stays on her as the gates close. It's in the fraction of a second before the gates shut that you see Winehouse's public facade slip. Her shoulders wilt a little, her jaw slackens and there's an almost defeated expression on her face. Kapadia zooms in and the image becomes as unclear as an Impressionist painting. All you're left with is that uneasy sense of having violated her privacy and simultaneously needing to give that young woman a big, warm hug.

In Amy, Kapadia's clever selection of footage and Chris King's brilliant editing present us with an intriguing meditation upon image-making in the modern era. Although no one in Amy mentions the paparazzi, Kapadia makes it quite clear that they're insensitive scavengers. The staccato clicks of their popping flashes and clicking shutters are Morse code for cruelty.

And yet, they're the only ones who see Winehouse for the unravelling mess that she was towards the end. They're looking for scandal, but what they ended up recording was Winehouse becoming more and more frail, more and more wild-eyed. Their photos show her going from slim to bony to skeletal. She's eventually so petite that she doesn't fill a frame unless it's a close-up of her wide-open eyes. The bouffant looks precariously large and fake, highlighting how artificial this Amy is. The eyeliner goes from a stylish accent to a determined camouflage.

You suddenly realise that once Winehouse becomes famous, there aren't any other images of her in Amy beyond these violently public ones. It's as though no one in her intimate world was looking at her anymore. And yet, in a thoroughly unnerving way, these invasive cameras have noticed more of Winehouse's struggles than her friends and family did. They have, in a manner of speaking, truly seen her.

Pictures lie. We all know that. We also know that they can tell the truth. Kapadia's decision to use paparazzi shots in Amy is a difficult one to support even though he uses them masterfully in the documentary. Yet, one can't help but wonder whether it really would have been better if those photographs didn't exist.

What actually drove Winehouse to create the music she did, to be the person she was, remains something of a mystery even with all the footage that exists of her. Without the paparazzi, however, she would have been even more of an enigma. Would we ever have known how Winehouse self-destructed without those photographs of her, tottering around in a narcotic haze? Are their images inadvertently providing us with a record of uncomfortable truths of our times?

Perhaps in an age when we maintain a determined control over our stories — whether it's as a home video, selfie, an Instagram feed or a Snapchat story — it's these image scavengers who collect the uncomfortable truths that we'd rather not confront.

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2015 12:19:41 IST

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