There is a common misconception in filmmaking which presumes the director to have total and divine confidence in both their subject matter, and the various processes by which they tell the story. Ben Reed’s film Portrait of Kaye, which premiered at Sheffield DocFest on Monday, June 7, signals a long-overdue redressing of this praxis. He freely admits that the process of making his film was fraught with anxiety and that, at times, he found himself questioning the moral reasoning behind his choice to chronicle another human life. His film, which documents in tender detail the everyday life of Kaye; natural performer, born-and-raised Londoner, connoisseur of films, wise-cracking 74 year-old and a life-long agoraphobic, is equally a study of the documentary form itself, and its attending moral quandaries.

Reed first met his precocious subject 10 years ago: “when I moved to London from Wales, I moved next door to Kaye. I kind of knew Kaye anyway; she was well known on the street. People who would go to her house would basically have to undergo ‘the tour’ – you’d meet Kaye and she’d show you around her house. It was mesmerising really, and we had so much in common because she was this mad film buff as well”.

Despite her obvious natural charisma and unconventional lifestyle, Reed only decided to make Kaye the subject of a film seven or eight years later. His watershed moment occurred, fittingly, while spending time at Kaye’s house.

“As part of the tour, you would sit down and watch her home movies. There was one home movie that I saw and it was just like watching a great film. It was so bizarre and brilliant and funny and sad all at the same time. I thought to myself ‘this is great cinema’”.

The home movie that Reed refers to features at the end of the film. Kaye’s mother is holding the video camera, watching as a young Kaye feeds treats to each of her three dogs in a methodical and somewhat obsessive manner; “20 for Chop, 20 for Dinah, 20 for Jack … 21 for Chop, 21 for Dinah, 21 for Jack …” (and so on and so forth). It is a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in the great annals of French New Wave cinema, allowing, as it does, for such pathos and bizarreness. At the time of the film’s conception, Reed was a self-prescribed “failed music video director” with a healthy dose of cynicism about the industry he was working in. His decision to document Kaye signified a move away from commercial work towards something that required of him a new artistic vulnerability.

Screenshot 2021 06 08 At 15(1)

Courtesy of: Ben J Reed

“Documenting Kaye was different from my previous work because it didn’t feel like real filmmaking. It was just the two of us and it was all shot on an iPhone. I used a tripod for the iPhone and did the sound myself. I just had a tiny wooden stool that I sat on – it allowed us to be totally casual”.

The result is a directorial presence that feels almost spectral, or at the very least incidental. Despite Kaye’s insistence on addressing Reed (“What d’ya think Ben?” functioning less as a genuine appeal and more as a linguistic marker), his resounding silence allows her to fully explore each avenue of her inner monologue and by extension her outer monologue. Not that he had much choice…

“One thing I learnt pretty quickly was to just shut up. There’s a few moments in the film where I go to speak and Kaye cuts me off and so I learnt pretty quickly that the best stuff was normally when I just kept quiet. Kaye has always had a performative element to her, and her tours are like being given a museum tour of her life. I’ve known her quite closely for ten years, so a lot of the stuff I’ve actually heard many times before. She even does variations of the same story as well. So the prompting was very minimal and was often based on what rooms we were in – her mother’s room, the Aladdin’s cave room and so on…”

The décor of Kaye’s sprawling home sits somewhere between an elaborately fitted doll’s house and a sentimentalist’s paradise. In her bedroom, the single bed she sleeps in appears almost to be more domestic nuisance than necessity; surrounded by the black and white photographs of Gracie Fields, Barbara Windsor and various Golden Oldies that adorn the walls. One gets the impression that, logistics permitting, Kaye would happily sleep on a bed of vintage centrefolds, in a shrine to the tragic beauties of screen and stage. Her unaffected romanticism beams out of the film, and alleviates any sense of pity or voyeurism. She is helplessly in love with someone called Lorenzo, a younger man, who is revealed in yearning snippets of conversation – “Lorenzo fascinates me, he frightens me”. Kaye’s candid admissions of desire and her newfound sexual confidence are handled with compassion by Reed, who acknowledges that, “the film is intensely personal. Kaye talks about things that many people would never talk to others about – things to do with sex and sensuality. I had a lot of stress about whether it was acceptable to share with people or not. It’s difficult because as a filmmaker, you have to have some establishing beats and some storytelling but I didn’t want it to be too salacious or pointed.”

“I don’t think I have the stomach to be a documentary maker. I think there needs to be a certain lack of neurosis in the filmmaker and a self-confidence which perhaps I don’t yet have. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights”.

As undeniably entertaining as Kaye is, there are certain moments in the film that are instilled with an unspoken sadness. In one particularly poignant scene, we watch as Kaye, for reasons beyond our comprehension, washes her hair in a bucket of sudsy water, in the middle of her carpeted living room. She is quiet and meticulous and Reed’s camera silently zeroes in on a pool of water that forms in the folds of the carpet. It is an uncanny image and quite distinct from the aforementioned dog feeding scene, by virtue of its stillness and its wordless melancholy.

Screenshot 2021 06 08 At 15

Courtesy of: Ben J Reed

“There is a sadness to her but people see it in different ways,” explains Reed, “I had a much older friend see it and say that he found it very sad that suddenly she’s taken control of her life and it’s almost as if it’s too late. But another friend said the direct opposite – that the film showed there’s no such thing as too late. Hopefully there’s enough space in the film that people can interpret it differently. But I definitely didn’t want it to be a tragic film – she’s such a buoyant and lovely figure, it’s really impossible to be filled with pity”.

He is right, of course. The film is disarmingly beautiful and remains firmly within the bounds of compassionate documentation, an element Reed was careful to adhere to, especially regarding the topic of Kaye’s agoraphobia.

“Some people who had seen the film suggested that I needed to say more about Kaye’s condition. But firstly, she really isn’t defined by her agoraphobia and, as is the case with most anxiety disorders, they’re not set in stone – they’re fluid and change through time. Another reason I didn’t dwell on it is because it’s just too complex. It becomes too much like an exposition to explain the practicalities. The way I approached the film was more like ‘this is what moves me’ and ‘how do I coalesce these into a story?’. I wanted to have scenes that were long and in which you could just be with Kaye”.

In resisting the urge to approach Kaye’s story in a journalistic fashion, Reed allows us to exist purely within the parameters of Kay’s world, which is as boundless and intriguing as her imagination permits. Reed’s film finds Kaye at time of great personal change. The death of her parents and her husband have left her entirely devoid of familial relations, but, ever the optimist, she tells Reed “I’m not really on my own, because I’ve got all my lovely friends – and sweetheart, there’s a lot to be said for your freedom”. The iterations of that newfound freedom are seen in her desire for Lorenzo, the faux-saucy topless portraits hanging from her walls, her gregarious blue eye makeup and finally, the desicion to cut her lusterous grey locks into a dashing page-boy style. One gets the distinct feeling that these are all impulses she might have liked to indulge in her former years, had her life not been quite so inhibited.

At the end of the film, Kaye opens her front door and pulls up a chair to the cusp, letting the noises and sights of the street wash over her. The camera stays firmly behind her, in the dark hall. Where veteran filmmakers may have been tempted to interrogate the situation, or burst through into the great outdoors, the beauty of Reed’s work is in his tacit understanding that a life is not defined by its public nature, and that dreams and memories can sustain us far into our twilight years.

Ben Reed’s Portrait of Kaye premiered at Sheffield DocFest on Monday, June 7. It is available to watch on Sheffield DocFest Player as part of a bundle for £5, until Thursday, June 10.