On this day three years ago, Miss Americana became available to stream on Netflix. This documentary was an up-close and personal view of Taylor Swift, who had been in the public eye for over a decade, but had never gotten to properly tell her story (that is, outside of her music).
Miss Americana gave Taylor the space to explore the struggles, both personally and publicly, that she had faced as a person who found fame so early in her life. The documentary was an empathetic and caring portrayal of someone who tends to be judged and projected upon, and it told Taylor’s story beautifully. Of course, this could only be achieved by an exceedingly talented and good-hearted director: Lana Wilson.
Miss Americana is Lana Wilson’s third documentary…
After Miss Americana, Lana became very well-known. However, this was her third documentary, and the two before it were just as perfectly crafted. Lana’s first documentary, After Tiller, tells the story of the four American doctors left who would perform third-trimester abortions, the only four in the country after the murder of Dr. George Tiller. These doctors are a huge target for the anti-abortion movement, making the work they do not only necessary but heroic. The documentary also tells the stories of some of their patients.
After Tiller, much like Miss Americana, is an intimate, empathetic exploration of people who have faced so much judgment and hatred. It gives heart to an issue that has become so politicized. After Tiller won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary, a testament to its quality.
As FF2 Contributor Roza Melkumyan says, “Wilson continues to impress me with her candid approach to storytelling. She manages to enter very intimate spaces with her camera and blend into the background, allowing her subjects the space to open up about their struggles. With a wonderful sensitivity to the very painful and delicate balance of issues they face – the choice to abort, thoughts of suicide, low self-esteem – Wilson remains respectful and compassionate. Even while filming the hands and laps of abortion patients to keep their identities hidden, she succeeds in eliminating barriers between the audience and the person on the screen.”
Lana’s next film certainly keeps up the intensity, exploring another highly emotional issue. The Departure, premiering at Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, is about a Buddhist priest in Japan who has dedicated his life to counseling suicidal individuals, helping them find reason to keep living. Again, Lana manages to create a deeply personal portrait of a human being, beautifully capturing the difficult yet incredibly important work that he does.
The Departure further showcases Lana’s ability to let the audience into an intimate space with the utmost sensitivity and care. As Roza Melumyan says, “Rather than use talking heads to relay information, Wilson lets Nemoto’s work speak for itself. Eliminating excess narration allows emotions — pain and sorrow especially — to breathe. There are no barriers to distance the audience from the very palpable experiences unfolding on screen.”
While Lana’s first two docs gained critical acclaim, Taylor Swift’s popularity brought in a much wider audience.
And then, of course, there is Miss Americana. While Lana’s other two docs gained critical acclaim and captured the hearts of anyone watching, there’s no doubt that the popularity and public fascination for Taylor Swift is what brought in a much wider audience for Miss Americana.
And yet, as Roza puts it, “one could chalk all that hype up to the film’s subject, famous pop singer Taylor Swift. But I’d argue that while Swift may draw the audience in, Wilson holds their attention with her ability to capture the essence of her subjects while keeping an unblinking lens on their story.”
Miss Americana tells Taylor’s life story, and “documents her journey, beginning as a crowd-pleasing ‘good girl’ to a headstrong, politically active, self-sufficient woman,” as I said in a tribute to Taylor Swift.
In Miss Americana, one way that Lana shows her love for Taylor is with Taylor’s songs that she chooses to score the film with. FF2 Contributor Brigid Presecky says that, rather than choosing Taylor’s most popular songs, “Wilson seems to understand that the magic is in the words Taylor puts on the page and plays through her fingertips on piano keys. It’s art, it’s connection, it’s being a human. Sometimes, people forget that she is one.”
Lana has proven that she has an almost uncanny ability to capture the heart and the humanity of her subjects.
By now, Lana has proven that she has an almost uncanny ability to capture the heart and the humanity of her subjects. In an interview with Lana, FF2 Contributor Danielle Solzman noted that Lana managed to capture Taylor at her “most raw and vulnerable.”
Lana responded, “Yeah, that was the goal. When I first met her in person, she said, ‘I don’t want to do a conventional pop star documentary. I’m not interested in the kind of movie where you do interviews with an elementary school music teacher talking about how talented you are, and it’s a biopic of your life.’ I was so excited by that because I really wanted to make something that felt raw and genuine and real and something that really told a story and had something to say.”
Lana is one of the most incredible documentary filmmakers of the time, not only because of her ability to portray nuanced and important stories, but because of her good heart. Hopefully there will be many more documentaries to come, because we can always use the chance to see the world through her lens.
© Julia Lasker (1/31/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Roza Melkumyan’s tribute to Lana Wilson here.
Read Brigid Presecky’s review of Miss Americana here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Credit to Taylor Swift
Bottom photo: Credit to Netflix