“Where the imaginary and the real come together”: 5 Questions for Jonathan and Elan Bogarin, directors of “306 Hollywood”

In their whimsical and innovative chronicle of memory, family, and the things that define us, filmmakers Elan and Jonathan Bogarin undertake an archaeological excavation of their late grandmother’s house. Enlisting the help of an archivist, an archeologist, a physicist, and a fashion conservator, the siblings embark on a journey from their grandma’s home in New Jersey to ancient Rome, from the 1940s to present day, in search of the story behind the objects she left behind and their own family history. Trained as visual artists and producers of nonfiction content for the world’s leading museums, the Bogarins joyously push the boundaries of the nonfiction form, mixing colorful tableaux, lip-synched reenactments, and low-grade video interviews with their candid octogenarian relative. The result is a stimulating and enjoyable look at the extraordinary nature of ordinary lives. Below, the Bogarins speak about magical realism, time, and the fine lines between the real and the imaginary.

As visual artists, you could have explored your grandmother and your grandmother’s home through a variety of modes (and you, do, of course), but how and why did you ultimately decide to tell this story through a documentary (rather than some kind of installation or other artwork)?

Jonathan Bogarin: We are visual artists, but we are equally fiction and nonfiction filmmakers. We run a production company where we make nonfiction content constantly. We’re very deeply committed to making nonfiction and engaging with real people’s experiences. What we bring to the table from other fields is that we also believe there’s a lot of truth in artifice. Creativity and imagination are the way that we, as a species, have always told stories. And we felt that there was an opportunity to create a new genre of nonfiction film: for us, it would be a film where everything was true and you can track real people’s lives, but we wanted to augment that as much as possible by bringing in visual art, so you would believe it or feel it as strongly as when you’re looking at a powerful painting or watching a movie you really care about.

You call “306 Hollywood” a “magical realist documentary.” And ever since the film’s premiere, audiences and critics have commented on the film’s innovative and imaginative approach to nonfiction, so I wanted to ask what were your influences?

Elan Bogarin: There are a few ways to answer that: Myths and magical realism have been used throughout history to address those life transitions, whether birth or death or coming-of-age, that are hard to pin down. So we wanted do adopt that language of myth and magical realism to dive into how we deal with death and loss. And we could harness all of this knowledge that people have developed around challenging issues, but in ways that you enjoy. And that was the pattern that we were first structuring the film around.

Jonathan Bogarin: We’re also Jewish on our mother’s side and Venezuelan on our father’s side, and we spent a lot of time in Latin America, where the ordinary and extraordinary coexist all the time, in daily life, in religion practice, and in culture, which combines the dream world and the real world, poetry and politics. In terms of specific influences, it comes from very different places: authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, from documentary, Patricio Guzman, whose Nostalgia for the Light was a big influence and Agnas Varda, in terms of her combination of visual art and nonfiction, and different genre filmmaking, like Jan Svankmajer, the master Czech animator. Our film is an encyclopedia of visual art references going back about 2000 years.

This is obviously a very deeply personal subject, and yet the film’s archeological, philosophical and scientific approaches run contrary to a personal story. So I think there’s an interesting tension between the emotional and the analytical in the film. Was that your intention, and if so, what attracts you to that duality or that synthesis?

Jonathan: The duality is an interesting question, because it goes into different expectations about different types of film. With documentaries, there’s an expectation about what is the topic: is it climate change, is it a political issue? What we wanted to do with the character of our grandmother, and the experience of the film, is the inciting incident is the loss of someone that we loved. It’s obviously a very personal experience, and it’s an experience that everyone goes through. And we wanted to take that spark and make it big. How do we show that this individual woman is remarkable in her ordinariness, and also what can it tell us about time, and life and death, and family and generations, and gender roles and politics, and fashion and culture and identity? How can we get into those things that you see in this ordinary person and get at all these bigger themes?

Elan: For us, though of course, it couldn’t be more personal, it’s about our family and it’s about losing someone we cared about, but one of the key components of the film is equally about the personal journey of trying to figure how we go about losing someone and thinking about time and our lifespans.

If we’re talking dualities, there’s also an interesting visual contrast in the film between the degraded video quality of the interviews with your grandmother and the more polished images you shoot. You talk about the obsolescent quality of video in the film, so was this contrast between “old” vs. “new” images also important to the film’s construction?

Jonathan: Our film is a film about time, in the same way that an archeologist goes through physical objects, we also went through 70 years of footage, from the 1950s to 2017. So we really wanted to think of footage and the way we represent people though film. It was important that you can see that it’s different: Sometimes it’s weird and pixelated; sometimes it’s crisp and sharp. So we wanted to foreground that and we talked a lot about film as object.

I love the musical number with the women wearing the dresses that your grandmother designed. Were you ever thinking: Maybe that’s too out there? Were there any ideas that you ultimately decided went a wee bit too far afield, or was it like: Anything goes!?

Jonathan: As we went through the process of making the film, there was never anything that went too far. There were only things that didn’t tell our story. Our goal was to go as far as we possibly could. If you think about the history of cinema, think of all the crazy things that people have put on screen. So we wanted to go as far as we possibly could, but again we would nix ideas that didn’t tell our story. This is where the imaginary and the real come together: The dance piece made perfect sense, because it was bringing to life something that was so important to my grandmother and my sister, and which brought them together across generations. That became our plan: Can crazy, imaginative, dreamlife things tell a real person’s story? Another challenge that we came against was whether what we were doing went far enough. We had six sit-down interviews, but we wanted to make it seem like there weren’t any sit-down interviews. So we did a lot of things where we were taking accepted things in documentary and bringing them into the magical. So it was about how do we take the real things and make them more magical, and how do we take the magical things and make them

Paula Froehle