Friday, May 03, 2013

Sean Kelly

Hot Docs 2013: My Thoughts on Searching for Bill


In Searching for Bill, a man named Bob Maser travels from his home in New Orleans to Detroit, in order to recover his car, which was stolen by a grifter named Bill.  After finding Bill’s notebook in the car, Bob decided to go on a cross-country roadtrip to location this elusive figure.  In the meantime, we become acquainted with a preacher named Michael and a hitchhiker named Lou.  We also meet the rest the Bill’s victims in a film, which turns out to be a hybrid of fiction and reality.

The goal of the film is to use a fictional search for an elusive man named Bill to tell real stories of how the economic and social conditions of the times are changing the western world.  Even though there is no real person named Bill, the film is based on real people and actual events.  The character of Bill, of whom everyone blames their problems, is supposed to represent the symbol of the vanishing American dream.

The main problem I have with Searching for Bill is that, even though I somewhat understand the intension of the director, I was not too happy with the film’s execution.  I saw the film knowing very little about it and it was never once obvious to me that this film was trying to give a message about the economic downturn.  What I saw was a film, which was very obviously scripted and it caused me to question whether these were real people or just actors.  It probably doesn’t help that some real characters were chosen to be the subjects of this film.  One look at Bob Master, with his bald head and bushy beard, is enough to leave you scratching your head and wondering if he’s for real.

Even though it made sense after I had the film explained to me, I was left confused why the film always focused on every individual who appeared on screen.  Even though much focus is given on the stories of Michael and Lou, they don’t really factor that much into the main search for Bill until everyone “coincidently” happen to cross paths at one point.  I fully began to realize that much of the film was dramatized when Bob begins to read Bill’s diary, which just happens to be narrated by Bill himself.

I’m not fully against documentaries that blur the line between fact and fiction.  In fact, many conventional documentaries features scripted scenes, which are portrayed as real life.  As such, it shouldn’t really be that bothersome that Searching Bill features scripted elements.  However, I thought the that the film fails by blurring the line so much, that I couldn’t really tell what was real and what wasn’t over the course of the film.  If I didn’t know better, and I wasn’t watching the film at a documentary film festival, I probably would’ve thought that Searching for Bill was a fully fictional narrative film.

In the end, I would consider Searching for Bill to be no more of documentary than The Blair Witch Project is.  The film is trying to be much more smart than it actually is and I wish the director made this subject matter into a more traditional documentary. I just feel that you are playing with the audience’s expectations when you portray a film as a documentary, yet show a fictional story instead.  There were better ways to give this message.


Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).