POV: How would you describe the film stylistically? Tell us a little bit about your aesthetic choices.
Ralph Arlyck: It’s a first-person narrative, and I like to do that, but I recognize that there are problems with the genre. The narration is akin to whispering in the viewer’s ear. But I don’t appear on camera, and that was a deliberate choice. I didn’t want to be a character in the film, except to be that voice. I wanted to speak frankly about things that that era brought up in me, with the assumption that if you’re of my age, you may have experienced them. So I wanted viewers to be able to hear that voice and then go off on their own and think, “Yeah, that was like that for me,” or “That’s your ’60s, that’s not my ’60s.” And then I hope that maybe the film cuts through some of the myths of the period for younger people who are curious, who never experienced it, who are maybe a little suspicious of all of the folklore around it.
POV: The narration provides a framework to pull disparate lives and eras together, but it’s also a meditation on family and time and the idea of home. How did you approach writing the narration for “Following Sean”? It’s a lot of different things to tie together.
Arlyck: I don’t do it all in one gulp. I generally don’t make films like that. I don’t shoot and then cut and then write. It all tends to sort of mix up together, and one process tends to reinforce the other. So I’ll shoot, and then we’ll start cutting, and then I’ll write some, and that will tell me I need to go back and shoot some more, or to edit it a different way.
So the narration is constantly changing according not only to how the scenes are cut, but also where they fall in the movie, and that’s constantly just moving around, putting it up here, putting it back there. That changes the weight of a scene and what the scene is really about, which changes what I have to say over it. And sometimes I don’t say anything. That’s the best part, when a scene just explains itself and you’re just watching and you don’t need my voice yammering at you, telling you what to think about it.
POV: Have you always turned your camera on your family, and how do they feel about it?
Arlyck: I started doing it in a cinema verité tradition, and then at some point I started narrating films, and then I really dove into filming my family. With my sons you can tell in the film that they have a long history of seeing me pull out the camera at inopportune times, and it doesn’t faze them — they just sort of dismiss it. My wife, Elisabeth, is a very private person and I think has some doubts about the whole documentary enterprise. I think she has mixed feelings about it. She likes a lot of documentaries but just wonders if it’s invasive, which it is. She likes the film but probably all things considered would rather not be on camera.
POV: How did making the film, over the course of 30 years, change you? Are there things that you reassessed about your own life over the course of making this film, or things that you learned?
Arlyck: I don’t know if “learned” is exactly the right word, but I came to appreciate and understand that I’m basically a watcher and an observer. I guess I’d always known this about myself, because I used to do journalism and so I tend to have kind of a sit-back sociological approach to life. I think it’s in the film that I’m not an actor — neither an actor as in a performer nor an actor as in history. I’m not someone who is actually out there on the front lines, making change. I’m more watching it. I may have always known this about myself, but I think making this film really made it very concrete. And in a way that’s true of my whole family, whereas Sean’s family was really in every moment in every generation; they were fully engaged in what was going on. Sean’s parents were really involved in the counterculture, whereas I was watching the counterculture. Sean’s grandparents were really involved in Communism and union organizing, whereas my folks were on the periphery of it. My hope is that viewers can identify with that, because I think most of us are observers, right? Occasionally we can get mobilized and do something, but most of us are mostly looking, watching.