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East End Film Festival: I Am Another You review - enchantingly contradictory documentary

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Nanfu Wang's intimate character study breaks open unexpected American issues.

As the subject of Nanfu Wang’s fascinating I Am Another You, Dylan Olsen was a fantastic find. It’s unlikely that said find was down to some remarkable second sight on Wang’s part - the massive about-face midway through the film relies solely on a singular impression of Dylan that crumbles before the viewer’s eyes - yet, quite by accident, she has brought an integral, softly-spoken character study to the East End Film Festival, to the surprise of those undoubtedly expecting a Paris, Texas-style road trip movie.

It is because of that preconception that the film works. It does indeed begin as a ruminative travelogue, centred on Dylan, a drifter whose self-imposed homelessness he treats as a personal freedom. Dylan self-romanticises his lowly position, much to Wang’s initial fascination, eventual irritation, and finally her parting ways with Dylan – how, she asks herself, can he, a human in a position from which many Americans are fighting to stay away, possibly both enjoy it and complain about it?

But when Wang’s narrative crosses Dylan’s again, it’s in the form of Dylan’s introverted, soft-spoken father, a detective in Utah specialising in child pornography and sex abuse cases. From him, we hear of Dylan’s existence before the film began, the effect of which is akin to some almighty flashback mid-narrative to fill in the gaps. It’s a fantastic technique – Wang’s journalistic work in the film reminds one of the incisive, precise detail of not just fellow documentarian Ezra Edelman, but of feature-writer CJ Chivers as well.

In her final narrative corkscrew, Wang then has a startling revelation about Dylan which, though illustrated perhaps too obviously, does completely re-write what precedes it. Suddenly, Dylan’s vague musings on the personal freedoms afforded to him are given reason, if not clarification: as it turns out, Dylan’s choice to leave home was a result of severe mental health issues, possibly stemming from drug use.

Through this lens, Dylan is now a different person. Far from an archetype, a fulfilment of an alt-American Dream, or a movie-star success story (he is tellingly compared in the first section of the film to both Forrest Gump and Walter Mitty), he is now part of an ever-growing population of people who are being torn apart from the inside. The onscreen illustration of that feeling, a recreation of Dylan’s paranoia and inner voices with friends of his, is easily the film’s most bracing moment.

There’s a frustrating vagueness surrounding all of this, beginning with much of Dylan’s reflective poetry in the first act and never really disappearing entirely (the closest it comes is when we stay with Dylan’s father in the second act). The overarching message appears to involve personal freedom, but it’s rather depressing to think that Dylan’s freedom may never come if he escaped to the wonder of the streets and still couldn’t outrun his paranoia.

But Wang’s potential as a filmmaker is far more important. She’s honest, self-reflexive in ways that create charming new dimensions for her stories, and draws on her heritage regularly to contrast her own customs with those of Americans. It lends her personality, reminding the audience that a human sits behind the camera. As brilliant as Dylan was for her protagonist, and her artist’s muse, she emerges the rising star.

I Am Another You screened as part of the East End Film Festival. For more info on the festival, click here.

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