The word "documentary" has taken on unpleasant connotations around its relation to a general cinema, no matter how inclusive, that must and will always define its force only by its own relation to the aesthetics of certain ontological givens. So let's not talk about Jarrod Whaley's 20-minute film from 2008, Passion Flower, with any more reliance on the term "documentary" (no 'readership'-taxonomies) than we would, say, for talking about Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room — although we note the two films represent the work of wholly different personalities. Beyond the shudder of constructing a lazy lede, let's just say "documentary" really falls away in Passion Flower because the relationship between the movie-apparatus and its subject is like a membrane so permeable that inside and outside become indistinguishable, irrelevant even, all to the extent the idea of cellular-anything — in the case of the film, "the filmed" itself — dissipates in the second before becoming metaphor.
The film was made (is made) with a middle-aged woman who, in her recent past, had undergone procedures for a double-mastectomy on account of breast cancer. At the time of shooting she has arrived at a Chattanooga tattoo parlor for the application across her upper chest of the image of a sprawling and intricate flower.
Now I'll pull back to describe a wider interplay: the film (as though by osmosis) comes to take on the same qualities as the tattooing itself — a surface beauty; a formidable complexity; an openness to the act of exchange. The woman, or the "subject" (in documentary parlance), is 'without' the camera, that is, she's completely one with her own monologue as she relates to the tattoo artist, to the women at the business, to the film crew, the story of her self-process. There's a relentlessness in her speaking, but such is the presence-in-the-moment — of both the woman, and of the film itself — that, despite the focus on "writing," the viewer never feels exposed to a d(en)omination of the id. Her story is her story. And Whaley proceeds with artistry — forget "sensitivity," filmmaker and subject are, in Passion Flower, equals at last — as he homes in on the details of the parlor environment itself (in place of needling inks, he photographs colors like de Staël's), and arranges, via camera-angles and cuts masterfully spaced and unobtrusive, the woman's body in alternately foreshortened and elongated compositions as though it were being 'dressed' (in place of oils, he makes montage like Holbein) — and thus acknowledges, in tandem with this Woman-as-Body and this Woman-as-Voice, the ever-present vicinity of death to life. For the future's never known, just as every moment of the past dwells also in the here-and-now: and Whaley-and-subject tease the 'doubling' motif out most explicitly in the implicit echo of the prone, tattooed body with that same body once laid flat on the operating table (unseen, unfilmed, 'in the past') undergoing amputation. The buzz of the tattoo gun even has its own correlatives as it saws and dips beneath the woman's speech. One of which, to gauge from the shots where the blue cable of the machine crosses the frame (the gun's correlatives exist in opposition), appears strictly umbilical. A sign, then, a mark, of intercessory calm — in a film essentially as beautiful as Utamarô.
But enough about the 'cinema' of the piece. Passion Flower (a film without a score) makes an appeal above aesthetics. That is, all tribal trappings aside, don't let yourself be fooled by the shaman who says that happiness comes only from within. These cells are transitory and delicate: cherish the women that you love and hold dear, and take nothing of them for granted, — as this present's a gift.