To say that Keeth Smart overcame adversity is an understatement. After losing both of his parents and battling a near-fatal blood disease, he ended up winning the silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Directors Luther Clement and Shuhan Fan join forces to share Keeth’s compelling story in Stay Close, one of the most celebrated short documentaries of the year. While the appeal of this inspirational underdog story is clear, so is the appeal of its execution, as Clement and Fan blend genres and utilize a mixed-media to carefully capture their subject’s tone and perspective while dismantling some of the most common cliches of sports storytelling. Keeth’s resilience shines through the screen as the film unfolds, yet while the film is an exemplar of inspiration, Clement and Fan avoid falling into the easy trap of mawkish over-dramatization.
Before turning to filmmaking, Luther Clement was a fencer, frequently facing off against Keeth Smart. When he switched his career aspirations to directing films, he wanted to work on a project about his fencing teammates. Clement got his hands on Keeth and his sister Erin’s home videos and was immediately struck by their intimacy. The entirety of Stay Close relies on Keeth’s narration and was built around the unexpected treasure trove of his recordings. From this poignant core, the filmmakers developed the project more experimentally, utilizing an approach more akin to a visual album than that of a documentary.
Keeth is such an inspirational and resilient subject while remaining humble that audience attachment comes naturally. His story is very specific—he is a fencing champion, which is an idiosyncratic calling far from the mainstream, yet the beginning of his story is very relatable to both sports films and to life: the hard work he put into his craft, the determination to not to give up, the success he then achieves, are all elements of a classic and relatable structure. The tone of the film remains hopeful even in the darkest times, yet despite this conventionality, Stay Close never feels overly-manipulative of one’s heartstrings. Much of this is simply Keeth’s nature, and Clement and Fan make sure to give their film the same tone as their subject, making the film all the more effective. The relationship and trust between the filmmakers and Keeth make the audience’s emotional experience the same as if Keeth was sharing his life story over a cup of coffee.
Especially for the tale of an underdog overcoming all obstacles, the challenge is to make a film that feels fresh. While tone is a key aspect here in downplaying the genre’s more saccharine tendencies, the formal visual approach is vital as well. Incorporating animation into a documentary is not revelatory in 2019, but the utilization of mixed-media techniques in the film is very well done. Once they got the archival footage, Clement and Fan started to build the illustrations and the musical score with a rare intentionality. Alternating between hand-drawn animation, reenactments, the personal archives of the family, and brand new footage, this diverse combination of visual sources lends the documentary a good pace and keeps the audience engaged while also revealing the many emotional layers of the story. In the lighter moments, Keeth has quite a funny tone while in the darker ones the editing and transition between the different styles offer the audience a beat to feel the depth of an individual moment’s impact. The animated segments, paired with the narration, offer insight into how Keeth felt inside, allowing a degree of interiority and subjectivity to the proceedings that is subtly contrasted to the more objective viewpoint provided by the archival footage. Returning to the film’s first scene again at the end, after all he went through, is a neat temporal decision to the film’s timeline and is the most effective directorial decision Clement and Fan make. Having allowed all of it to sink in, we see the scene with completely fresh eyes as the emotional build-up reaches its climax, leaving us with an exquisite taste of inspiration when the credits roll.
Stay Close premiered at Sundance back in January and went on to have a stellar festival run with a notable stop at the Palm Springs ShortFest. It premiered online as one of the New York Times Op-Docs and is currently on the shortlist for the 2020 Academy Awards. Currently the filmmakers are working on a new short documentary about an Argentinian pianist, part of a musical duo with her husband, who grapples with her sexuality.