Rebbie Ratner had spent quite a bit of time deciding what the opening scene would be to her debut feature, “Borderline,” figuring that perhaps with a challenging subject such as borderline personality disorder she might ease audiences in. But then again, that just wouldn’t do justice to Regina, her compelling – and abrasive – main character.
“Eventually, my sister watched it – she isn’t a [film] editor, but an editor-editor at The Nation and she thinks about structure all the time, so she suggested I move this [scene that opens the film up],” Ratner says of introducing Regina in the midst of a heated therapy session. “Then it worked because you just get thrown into it. It’s unapologetic and I think it doesn’t leave people much room to get comfortable. It’s like here you are, we’re in, and that’s it, get ready.”
You know Ratner made the right decision because “Borderline” isn’t an easy sit, but a necessary and deeply affecting one, accompanying Regina in her daily life where every conversation is a possible mine field. Bold and brash to match Regina’s temperament, the film is also deeply attentive and meticulous about chronicling what it’s like to live with continually shifting moods and emotions with little to no control over them. While “Borderline” takes Regina’s lead, given to extremes in following her down the rabbit hole of online dating and attempting to find a suitable job after both a longterm relationship and steady employment have evaporated at 45, Ratner finds a balance in between getting inside her main subject’s tangled mind and showing compassion and understanding of the condition in the way she presents Regina as a force of nature and knowing all the right questions to ask of the experts peppered through the film.
As the film plays DOC NYC this weekend in New York, as part of a strong festival run that began at the Big Sky Documentary Festival in February, Ratner spoke about why she was inspired to make the film, finding Regina as a subject and how the film stylistically reflected the condition.
I have the diagnosis myself, which I had finally gotten at 39, and I hold the belief that basically a diagnosis is a construct. It’s what you choose to make it, and certainly, with regard to mental health treatment, I think it gives you power to make decisions on how you’re going to get treated. I put myself into treatment after looking for help for years and coming up empty, being an intense reader of psychology books to try to figure out what was wrong with me. I wasn’t like someone sitting on my ass waiting for help to arrive. I was very active and tenacious in trying to get myself help and, in spite of that, still could barely get it. So when I came out of treatment, I had not completed my MFA in film, and I reached out to the University of Texas at Austin, which is where I had gone to film school, to see if they would consider re-admitting me to complete the degree.
Originally, this was like a thesis school project and [after treatment,] I was basically like I need to focus and I need to try to throw myself into something that will keep me busy with an intended goal in mind. I had to jump through all these hoops in life in order to achieve that goal of making a film. I think it could have been something else, but [the film] becomes the way of growing myself out of the diagnosis or the symptoms that you confront.
Just interfacing with life is going to end up instigating certain feelings and in that instigation, the process of getting better involves being able to identify the feeling, tolerating it in spite of its discomfort, and then going through, usually, with the commitment that you’ve decided to engage, regardless of how scary and uncomfortable it is.
Did you ever think to do this autobiographically?
If I had been desperate and couldn’t find anyone, I guess I would have. With borderline [personality disorder], the problem in someone trying to do a film about themselves is that what’s inherently interesting to me about it is the interpersonal dynamics. When people do personal portrait films about themselves, it ends up being a lot of talking to the camera, saying how they’re feeling, and I saw one on Borderline, which is great that the person did it, but you didn’t see a lot of the challenges that are faced interpersonally because it’s hard to film that. It’s hard to engage in a challenging moment interpersonally and hold the camera at the same time if you’re the subject of that interaction, so it wasn’t really a good option for me to be in it.
I found Regina [after] I put an ad on Craigslist because it was hard to find people who would be willing to put [themselves] out there because the word on the street is that [borderline personality disorder is] highly stigmatized. So if you get the diagnosis, then you’re told, generally, keep your mouth shut because you won’t get a job or you’re lose your job or you won’t get a boyfriend or a girlfriend, so it’s self-perpetuating.
You actually find Regina at a point in life where she’s in search of both those things, though she’s had them in the past. Was that something you were looking for?
I posted the Craigslist ad on the jobs listing section, so it’s strange that it didn’t occur to me that that could end up being a part of the narrative, but it makes sense that it would be. People who have the diagnosis struggle with employment and because I know the diagnosis is about messy attachments, I figured there was a good chance that whoever I was working with would be struggling with romantic relationships in some way.
Was there much thought put into the camerawork of this? It’s obviously handheld, but it’s continually interesting how you’ll move the camera around Regina in a scene.
Honestly, I think I’m not crazy about the camerawork in it, and I did most of the shooting, and I’m not crazy about it. Someone said it’s filmed in a borderline way and I think it’s because if I have a feeling, I get reactive really quickly to it, so then I move the camera in response to that feeling, and it’s good to know that I have that feeling, but because I don’t think about it, I don’t think it’s that good. I think sometimes I think it’s better just holding the camera and not moving it and believing that maybe whatever that feeling is that I’m having is still getting answered if the camera is staying in one place. But that’s something I very actively need to work on in shooting. It’s so hard to fight moving it. With Regina, what was going on was so interesting that a lot of the time that I probably didn’t need to do a lot of moving of the camera, but at the same time, I was basically thinking, “Shit, if it’s too long on one shot, then I’m forced to jump cut, and I want to use jump cut stylistically, not out of necessity.”
It worked for me. Something else I appreciated was how you laid out the details of the borderline condition through the course of the film. How did the structure to this come about?
I don’t know about other people, but I’m just looking for what keeps me in the game [during shooting] and that goes with the edit as well. With a documentary, you’re always waiting for something to happen and maybe the “better” subjects that you choose, the more likely it is to happen with greater frequency. In the edit, one of the goals was to shift between contrasts – to edit in a way where the audience or viewer would be feeling something different from scene to scene, so you would feel uncomfortable one minute and maybe a little sad the next or maybe frustrated. That way the viewer herself or himself is constantly trying to contend with feelings that seemed counter to one another, which is, to some extent, what it’s like to have the diagnosis, not be able to tolerate two apparently contrasting feelings at the same time.
That tension can be felt in the fantasy-like sequences include where, for instance, you show the allure of cutting oneself with people who really have with power pop music accompaniment in luxurious settings. How did that idea emerge?
I was a little frustrated shooting a doc film because I had less ability to choreograph and control what goes on in front of the camera. There were thoughts and feelings that I have that I really wanted to express and to some extent, I was married to what shows up for me, so I was looking for opportunities to shape it. In terms of choices in regard to music or those sequences, that was my attempt to try to inject just my associative feeling and point of view and be unapologetic in it as I can be. Because it’s not the actual person that I’m filming, I’m not as beholden to the set of ethics that I am when [Regina’s] in front of the camera exclusively.
What’s it been like traveling with the film?
The more audience, the merrier, and it’s always interesting to see how different audiences respond differently. Regionally, there’s been some inconsistencies or some differences and I’m always interested in seeing that because as the viewing experience is different, the film changes a little bit with each varied experience. I’ve found that the more people there are, the more laughter there is because it’s contagious. Hopefully, this is treating the people in it respectfully, but because I also want to do something that makes people feel things, when I hear people laugh, it feels good because they’re feeling something.