I filmed The Pull, a short documentary about a recovering addict named John Bixby, during the fall of 2017. Over the course of a few months, I watched in person as John’s sharp and relentless intellect battled his stiff but weakening resolve; then, almost frame by frame, I re-watched it all in great detail on the computer screen as I began to navigate and arrange the footage. The Pull is a raw portrait of sustained vulnerability and distress; the unbleached quantum of suffering on the screen was immense.
Pain is something we systematically avoid in daily life, and films that confront pain are films that confront a taboo; they trigger a virtually endemic discomfort. On the one hand we respond to the content itself, to the visibility of something that, on individual and social levels, we strive to eradicate or at least avoid; on the other, at least with a documentary, we also intuit the ethical question implicit in watching someone’s suffering in the first place. This isn’t a replica, after all, but the real thing, and by choosing to watch, the audience is complicit in the director’s choices. Is our gaze authorized? Does the filmmaker ensure that the film doesn’t cross over from realism to voyeurism and mutate a legitimate portrait into exploitation? A filmmaker documenting pain has an emotional and practical authority that the subject lacks, and how that filmmaker exercises this emotional hegemony raises questions that go beyond the default object-subject divide.
The subject matter of The Pull is intensely private, so we have to wonder whether we’re really permitted to look and witness the intimacy. But John’s vulnerability is precisely the film’s point. His shibboleth, as we were making the film, was that if the movie helps even one person, making it will be worth it; maybe seeing his pain would help someone else avoid it. Institutional processes in the US largely criminalize addicts, and the national narrative reduces them to legal charges and chemical doses. Addiction is seen as self-inflicted failure; the etiology is passed over in silence. Because the victims are the perpetrators, the supply of empathy is limited. As with any mass phenomenon, the national narrative bleaches out the individual. And the point of The Pull is to restore three dimensionality and incarnate the individual. Those ugly moments—moments of heartache, gloom, despondency, wretchedness—are not only symbolic of addiction in general, but also defining parts of John’s own story. Through them, John recaptures the narrative about his own suffering.
Graham Greene wrote that in “misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” A documentary about suffering can elicit the same self-awareness, but through empathy rather than ego. The nerve that winces may be mine, but the nerve is merely human. A film about pain can help each of us find a place in a community of pain, and help us understand the other’s suffering even if the suffering isn’t ours.