STEELE INTERVIEWS: Interview with Filmmaker David Redmon

Invisible Girlfriend is a strange, yet compelling documentary about Charles Fihoil, a bipolar/ paranoid schizophrenic 42-year-old father of three who sets out through rural Louisiana on a 400-mile bike trip to New Orleans about a couple of girls: one imaginary and one who may or may not be. Right from the beginning he introduces the viewers to his “invisible” girlfriend Joanie who is actually Joan of Arc. A bronze statue of Joan of Arc stands right in a New Orleans park. Charles expresses his feelings that they are destined to be together and that she speaks to him and guides him in one way or another. Charles remains adamant that Joanie will present herself to him in one way or another. [He said that Joanie promised him “she would manifest herself as a flesh and blood woman.] He claims that he was there with her in the 1400s and he even held her hand as she was being burned. He thinks that he needs to return to New Orleans for Joanie but also because he felt a connection with another woman, a bartender named Dee Dee. He talks about Dee Dee and the kindness that she showed him when he was in New Orleans several years before. Charles also describes this New Orleans trips as active seeking and that it would not upset him if Dee Dee was actually Joanie. “She’s a lot like Joanie,” Charles remarks. “She has angelic qualities. She’s also a female warrior.” Along the back roads from Monroe to New Orleans, Charles meets random people including a witch, a Tin Man, and a farmer preparing to deliver a calf. Invisible Girlfriend provides a glimpse into a little-explored or seen area of the country where hope thrives and people demonstrate the existence of Southern hospitality despite the intense devastation that engulfs them. The final moments of Invisible Girlfriend could not be more stunning and thought-provoking.

Grade: B+

Screening at IFFBoston.
4/23, 7:45 p.m. and 4/25, 12:30 p.m., Somerville Theatre.

Filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon met Charles Fihoil several years ago when filming another documentary called Kamp Katrina. Charles had been living in a tent down in New Orleans. I spoke on the phone with David Redmon on Monday.

Amy Steele: How did you find Charles?

David Redmon: We made a film called Kamp Katrina and Charles was in that film and had this invisible girlfriend but then he suddenly disappeared. We wondered what happened to Charles and called a number (we had for him) and he was in North Louisiana living with his parents and he said he wanted to return to New Orleans to thank the people who helped him out. He couldn’t drive. He had to ride a bike. We decided we would ride the bicycle with him and have a car as a back-up. One of us was on bike with a camera and the other was miles ahead in a car.

AS: When do you know when you actually have a good subject matter to go ahead with a documentary/ how much of the filming is a “gamble” to get good footage to put together a film?

DR: It’s almost impossible to tell a story with one person. People told us not to do it. We had a hunch something was there and decided to trust his decision and take the ride with him. We thought something would happen in rural Louisiana. He would have an epiphany. Something would change in his life.

The decay/dilapidation/symbols of death make sense in hindsight. The abandoned ship indicative of decay, of the economy. Gas stations abandoned. A lot of abandonment but life as well.

AS: What surprised you the most?

DR: How witty and sharp and clever Charles is. He’s in tune with people. He has a sixth sense about people. It’s easy to stereotype and pass judgment on this crazy guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. But of course the conclusion we didn’t expect this at all.

But also people were so kind along the way. A lot of really kindhearted people who opened up their homes for a small moment in time. No one was afraid of the camera.

AS: How did you manage to keep yourself out of the film? (I think of the scene where his bike was upturned and he seemed to accuse you of sabotage and another time when his mother said, “Be careful.” and Charles replied, “That’s what they’re for.”)

DR: Examples of paranoia in action. Given degree of reality TV. Illustrates a breakdown of trust. He thought he was being watched and there were invisible people in his house (Truman Show syndrome). Not CIA, FBI, new form of invasiveness where people feel they are being watched. Culture combined with something going on with the brain is what psychiatrists say. Our presence had an impact on him thinking are these people for real.

Ashley and I are very much a part of the film. It is creative non-fiction. We are not detached observers. He demanded, got angry.

AS: What would you most like people to take away from Invisible Girlfriend?

DR: If you go into the film with a stereotype, what am I getting into and then feel a degree of shame for feeling that way. There’s a degree of human kindness and consideration and zaniness.

Do not let the diagnosis or label define my interpretation of Charles. It’s more nuanced than schizophrenic/bipolar label. Much more layers of meaning behind that term.

AS: While filming, what did you learn as filmmakers?

DR: We have moved in a direction more toward literature, toward telling a story. Playing with the line toward telling a story. That three act structure but understanding it more as a story than a didactic narrative. Not trying to send a message. Not trying to tell people you should think this way or that way. Define the story and Charles in a more nuanced way.

AS: How do you work together- technically and personality-wise?

DS: I have a sociology background so take an ethnographic approach. It requires us to spend time with people participant-observer. I’m more cold. I’m the observer.

Ashley participates more. She gets more attached. She wants to repair the situation. Of course she wants to understand it but wants to open up characters in a way I can’t. She would be asking questions: “Are you okay?” “What’s going on?”

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