Scott P. Harris is a redhead, and he’s not happy about it. To hear him tell it, being “ginger”—the pale skin, the freckles, the carrot-colored hair—is an open invitation to bullies and a deal-breaker with women. So much so, in fact, that the young filmmaker, who got his education in the radio-television-film program at the University of Texas before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, decided to make a documentary about female resistance to the charms of redheaded men. Harris, unlucky in love, essentially decided to look for a girlfriend under the guise of conducting a cinematic study. What he finds in Being Ginger, ultimately, is himself.
With the proliferation of camera phones, home video-editing software, social media and YouTube, ours has become a self-consumed age. At no point in history (with the possible exception of those few decades after Freud introduced psychoanalysis to the world) have humans been so overtly, obviously obsessed with themselves. From the standpoint of documentary filmmaking, that self-obsession is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, too much self-direction can topple into navel-gazing and the delusion that one’s personal problems and hang-ups are brand new in the world and therefore irresistibly fascinating. On the other hand, under the guidance of the right filmmaker—the kind willing to follow whatever rocky, memory-plagued path his movie is leading him down—the cinema of self-obsession can be a goldmine of honesty and universality. All it takes is a willingness on the part of the storyteller not just to be the subject of his own movie, but to fully expose himself on the operating table for all the world to see.
It’s precisely this willingness that takes Harris’ film out of the realm of the merely clever and into the world of the truly exploratory. Not long into Being Ginger, it becomes clear that there are worlds of conflict inside Harris. He’s not just a guy who has a hard time getting dates because of the color of his hair. He’s a man tormented by ancient scars and unhealed bruises. These all may relate to his ginger-ness, or his hair color might simply be the means by which he cultivates and expresses his own deep self-criticism … and self-fascination.
Take Harris’ response when his camerawoman asks him why, if he’s had no luck with non-ginger women, he doesn’t just go out with a fellow redhead. If being a ginger is really that hard, she asks, surely he might find sympathy and shared experience with a woman afflicted with the same condition? But he refuses. “Gingers are ugly. I don’t like them,” Harris says, before dropping the big reveal. “But I think it’s just I don’t like myself and I’m projecting myself on them.” There it is: the depth and self-awareness of a 21st-century male who can not only see the deep-seated motivations behind his various dysfunctions, but isn’t afraid—is eager, in fact—to admit them on camera. That kind of openhearted and reflective narcissism (self-loathing is nothing if not an acute form of narcissism) may make for tough living, but it makes for fascinating documentary filmmaking. For all his on-camera protests that he wants to keep his movie light—just a trifle about trying to find love as a redheaded man—Harris is open enough as a person and smart enough as a filmmaker to know that his movie is and should be about more than that. That it’s about the nature of bullying and lingering emotional damage and the role of the self in a society obsessed with confession and covered in cameras. Harris is both a filmmaker and a performer, and despite his claim of being uncomfortable in the spotlight, who but someone in love with the spotlight would even think to make a movie about himself—a movie featuring more than one scene in which he films himself watching himself on a TV screen?
As a result of all that reflexive fascination and near-poetic solipsism, Harris’ drama descends more than once into melodrama; his desire for acceptance is true and touching, but there’s probably no need to compare a festival gathering of redheads in Holland to the gay pride or black power movements.
Or maybe that level of self-importance is required to fully capture in documentary form the spirit of our age—an age in which everyone is convinced that everyone else wants to hear everything she has to say and see everything he does; an age in which complexes and neuroses aren’t hindrances, but motivations for self-expression and self-exposure; an age in which a filmmaker can turn the tale of his own torment into a worthwhile cinematic expression, an unapologetic song of himself.