DOC NYC profile: ‘Kati with an I’

In an effort to sidestep what he calls the 'quirkfest' that modern docs have become, director Robert Greene filmed his younger half-sister, Kati Genthner, as she made the transition from high school life to young adulthood.
November 8, 2010

The fleeting, final days of youth are the subject of director Robert Greene’s quietly moving and poetic Kati with an I, a documentary feature that follows his younger half-sister as she prepares to graduate from high school.

The film documents 18-year-old Kati Genthner during the final three days of her high school life in Alabama as she grapples with adulthood. The film had its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival in New York on Saturday and is up for a Gotham Independent Award in the ‘Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You’ category.

Shot fly-on-the-wall style with an impressionistic eye by cinematographer Sean Price Williams and produced by New York-based 4th Row Films, the documentary’s narrative unfolds slowly and unassumingly as Genthner horses around with her friends and argues with her boyfriend. Greene immerses viewers in her world through his attention to detail and unwavering focus on his subject, who is a jumble of contradictions: eloquent and chatty, silly but seemingly in possession of worldliness beyond her years.

‘I am really tired of spectacular people in film. I want to see normal people in film,’ says Greene. ‘For me, that’s important because I think that documentaries have become, you know, quirk-fests: crazy characters doing crazy things.’

Genthner has been long been a muse for Greene. The film features footage of her as a child that he shot during his years at film school. The idea to make a film about her arose following the completion of his first documentary, Owning the Weather, a highly formal affair full of scientific facts and figures. Looking to shoot something more introspective and character-driven, he called Williams and suggested they travel to Alabama to film his younger sister.

Williams flew in advance of Greene and followed spent three days shooting before Greene arrived for graduation day – right when the drama started to unfold.

‘We acted like it was a film, but we weren’t sure if it was going to come out,’ he says. ‘We didn’t have to spend any money. We didn’t have any investors; I was being paid because the company [4th Row Films] believed the idea could be a possible project.’

Production took place in May, 2009 and Greene had an initial edit together by the following October. Then, Genthner called with some unexpected news and he flew to her new home in North Carolina to shoot the footage that ends the film.

For Greene, who shares the same mother as Genthner but is 14 years older, the spelling of her first name points to the particularly Southern, working class attitude he grew up around and sought to immerse his viewers in with this doc. One scene that some audiences might find jarring comes during the high school graduation, which features a rousing, politically-charged speech by a local conservative radio commentator.

‘Getting married, having a baby, going to church – they’re things that are so ingrained that they get practiced over and over again without thinking about what they are,’ he says. ‘It’s really about how in this normal environment, things are ingrained in a way. I’d like for a New York audience to ask, ‘Hey, I wonder what things are ingrained in my environment?’

Kati With An I screens Monday, Nov. 8 at 6 pm at New York’s IFC Center as part of DOC NYC and Nov. 21 at the Museum of Modern Art in association with the Gotham Independent Film Awards’ ‘Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You’ program.

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