What Remains includes old and new material. The documentary benefits from incorporation of much of Cantor's 1994, Oscar-nominated documentary short Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, made during the height of the media controversy surrounding Intimate Family. However, it also includes a lot of new footage of Mann, and her family and work.
What Remains takes its name from the eponymous 2003 collection of photographs that Mann was working on during principal photography for the documentary. The photos in this collection are principally of landscapes touched by death, especially battlefields, and of corpses in various states of decay. This work, it seems, in some part serves as a means for Mann to deal with a crisis of mortality in her own life: her husband was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy in 1994 that is slowly but inexorably ravaging his body.
What Remains feels deeply personal. Cantor and Mann come off as close confidants. Mann lets down her guard with Cantor and shares her hopes and fears, but this intimacy between filmmaker and subject seems to also prevent Cantor from objectively considering his subject. Cantor captures Mann's self-doubts, but he fails to critically examine her body of work. For example, when a New York gallery exhibition of Mann's collection What Remains is abruptly canceled, Cantor leaves Mann's prospective that the cancellation reflects shortcomings in the gallery, rather than the work itself, unchallenged.
What Remains is so closely focused on Mann that it feels claustrophobic and unbalanced at times. Of the few figures outside of Mann's family shown, none are authoritative, and those few that are critical are excerpted in ways that undermine their legitimacy. Although all of Mann's children appear on camera, and none voice criticism of their mother, these interviews seem less than complete and candid, and generate as many questions as they answer. It may be that Cantor simply chose to be diffident of Mann's children's privacy, but I would not be surprised to learn that the Sally Mann exercised a veto over the editing of the film.