Like a jackknife disappearing into the dark fissure of society’s twisted bowels, the new immersionists are stabbing themselves deep into their subject and not coming out until the wounds heal.
The idea of immersionism has been around since George Orwell lived as a bum for Down and Out in Paris and London. Pioneers such as Fred Wiseman continued the cause in the 60s, spending years alongside his subjects. However, this new wave differs from documentaries like High School because Wiseman didn’t literally go back to school to get his story. He just filmed high school kids. No, this current wave of immersionists has people like photojournalist Lanre Feintola doing smack and crack for nine years as a way to infiltrate the milieu of junkies. Just as we’ve had gonzo literary figures like ivy-league-educated author William Vollmann fucking transsexuals while freebasing as research for his novels, we now see the same anti-tourist shenanigans popping up in film.
Nobody sums up the new immersionism better than Leo Regan. In 1992, the 27-year-old photojournalist shot the audience at a Skrewdriver show and ended up fascinated with a band of ultra-violent British skinheads in the neo-nazi gang “Combat 18.” For two years he ran with them, documented their violence and became involved in their personal lives, all of which coalesced into a published book. “They were intrigued by me,” he says. “They were just kind of baffled by my presence and kind of adopted me in a way.”
Simultaneously, his friend Lanre Feintola delved into the marginalized world of addicts and prostitutes and stayed there for almost a decade, becoming lost in the woods. Lanre’s book never quite materialized and he slipped further and further into heroin. A decade later, Regan traded his Nikon for a digital video camera and started making documentaries for British TV, following up on the skins and tracking down Lanre. He found two similarly pathetic stories of completely deluded bullshitters too full of their failed ideologies to function.
Regan’s films 100% White (a celluloid update on an immersionist nazi photo journal) and Cold Turkey (an immersionist documentary on a failed junkie immersionist) are like watching that bald cult guy they found with his Nikes in place and his balls cut off and actually understanding him as a person. You’re seeing dysfunctional clichés (skins, junkies) tapping the snooze until all of a sudden they’re middle-aged, abandoned by their wives and kids. Scary thing is you begin to understand the reality of who these people really are for a change. You actually care about them.
We met Leo Regan in London recently and asked his Irish ass why he would bother aiming a ten-year microscope at the scum of the earth. “Why do I waste years of my life on these projects?” he yelled back incredulously from a pub in Camden. “To spend time in that part of society that in normal circumstances I would have no access to, no understanding of, it somehow gives me some kind of faith in humanity. That might sound very strange to you, but I think it makes sense. I come out of these things thinking it’s our problem; it’s not their problem. We as a society are deeply flawed!”
At the core of the film 100% White is the violent psychopath Neil, who couldn’t remember the amount of people he’s stabbed when asked for an estimate. Neil is now undergoing anger management counseling and eating at Pakistani restaurants, accepting that it’s impossible to chase the bastards out. “I’ve tried to cut them out. It don’t work,” is Neil’s exact quote.
“Some of the things he’s done, I can’t even bear to hear them to be honest with you,” Regan explains of Neil. “It makes you sick to your stomach some of the things he’s been responsible for. But as an individual, I have to say I do like the man. That contrast is very disturbing for me and I think it adds a power to the thing. I mean, I see somewhere in him a humanity of someone trying to break free. “In his world, it’s eat or be eaten. So, I have a lot respect for him in mastering that world of violence and intimidation. And in a way, that’s kind of screwed him up because he finds himself in a world where he’s got kids and a family and those tricks that he learned don’t operate in the world he’s in now. He’s kind of lost. And here he is ten years later trying to live a normal life and he is struggling.” In 100% White we follow pudgy, middle-aged skins that are half-assed clinging to faded rhetoric that burned passionate in youth and now seems as misguided as their faded Führer tattoos. Aryan-supremist dads barbecue for their extended colored family. They date mixed-race girls and channel their aggression into raves while pretending they’re still committed to their ideology. Banal daily routines become comical as skins put on blinders to shield their crumbling identity politics from themselves. In Regan’s other film Cold Turkey, we see the aforementioned Lanre Feintola decide to kick a nine-year heroin and crack addiction with 7 days of cold turkey by bolting the door on his apartment. He invited Leo to document the process and, after some reservations, he agreed. “I was watching this man I’ve known for 15 years disintegrate in front of me and every time I went back to see him he was worse. He was absolutely falling apart and actually becoming psychotic, believing that he has animals living inside his body and stuff like this. That was from the crack. His body, his veins, were clogging up with all the crap, because he was using street heroin that’s mixed with all sorts of rubbish. He was dying there, you know.” Leo falls silent for a second and decides it is very important to clarify the major pitfall of being an immersionist. “Lanre was a photojournalist and he just lost the plot really. He was investigating this story on drugs and just completely became absorbed by it and really went down the tubes. I was following him for a year as he tried to pull himself out of that world and in fact he did pull himself out that world and got his book deal and cleaned up. But as soon as the film came out he went straight back down again. He could never stop - with his projects, with anything he’s done. He’s very intense, but he could never pull himself out.”
It’s amazing to watch how Lanre lives in a palatial apartment with a full-blown habit and no job, surviving this way for over a decade. “You saw yourself, he’s a great bullshitter,” Leo adds, “and he managed to convince the housing association to house him. The social welfare system is quite good and you can use it to your advantage.” The first thing that hits you about these films is the futility of lies when someone is closely observed over several years. For over a year we see Lanre attest repeatedly that he’s gone clean, with sincere performances that would give Ari Fleischer a hard-on. Leo himself became fascinated with the immersionist coup of documenting subjects unaware of their own delusion. “The bullshit factor alone,” comments Regan, “which he believes and it’s so apparent that it’s bullshit. I went into this situation trying to be optimistic. I convinced myself and him of that. Without that we’d be wasting our time, but I think we were wasting our time.” Eventually, when confronted by Leo with a camera in hand about where his life really was at, Lanre couldn’t take it anymore and jumped from the nearest window, breaking his leg from the second story fall. The truth was too much for him to bear. The last we see of him is a figure limping off into the night, running away from his life as a Will Oldham song comes on. In metaphorical terms, it’s universal to the human condition. “I was listening to I See a Darkness while making Cold Turkey and became completely obsessed with it. I asked him for permission to use three songs from it and Will couldn’t handle it, because it was so close to an experience he was having. While he was watching the rough cuts, a friend of his had been through a cold turkey experience and had used his album, that music, to get through that experience. Whatever it was, it touched a raw nerve in him.” Leo Regan’s next film Battle Center, is due out on Channel 4 (UK) this February. “I spent a year in a house in London, run by a very extreme church,” says Regan. “They wear combat jackets and kind of pull people off the street. Watching one guy who comes in off the street, a hitchhiker who has no experience of religion, and watching this guy convert in front of my eyes was an amazing thing.” Rather than joking about a commune of indoctrinated vagrants, Leo gives a more honest conclusion. “It’s all about love, that’s the bottom line. It is about love. In my opinion it is a very powerful feeling of love that would knock you out – very disturbing but very real.”