Thursday, September 15, 2016

Oh, granny! Tom Fassaert's Dutch doc about his problemed relatives, A FAMILY AFFAIR

So much is made these days about the often "tenuous" link between truth and whatever new documentary is currently under the critical microscope -- see Nuts, Cameraperson and Kate Plays Christine for three prime examples: two excellent, the other not so -- that when an old-fashioned, point-your-camera-and-try-to-get-the-whole-story appears, it almost seems fresh and unique. Such is the case with A FAMILY AFFAIR, in which Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert attempts to get his paternal grandmother, Marianne, who now lives in South Africa and has reached the ripe old age of 95, to come clean about the past.

Mr. Fassaert, shown at right, dispenses with anything "meta" or even much that is discursive. And don't look for clever animation to help fill the time and increase your enjoyment. The filmmaker explains at the opening what he is after and why, and then he simply goes for it. But since what he is going for is the deep secret that appears to be hiding within that grandmother, you can expect to enter a certain very dark region known as "family." When Mr. Fassaert's father was just a young boy, his mother, Marianne, placed him and his brother in a children's home, occasionally visiting them but in reality more-or-less abandoning her two children.

Both grew up highly problemed. Tom's father (shown above with his mother in later years) worked around those problems as best he could, providing a home and a help to his son, Tom. Tom's uncle, dad's brother René, was not so lucky and remains, to this day somewhat mentally at sea. Down the years, the relationship between Tom's dad and Tom's grandmother has remained rocky -- very off and on, stop and start.

So when Tom receives a request from his grandmother to come and visit her in South Africa, he jumps at the chance, turning on his camera almost immediately. Family albums -- in both Holland and South Africa -- are unearthed and combed through (granny was a fashion model back in the day) and the camera stays on grandmother as much as possible with occasional forays into dad and René and a few even farther outliers.

It does not take long, however, before Tom (and we viewers) realize that his granny (below, in her glamor curlers) is not going to be forthcoming on her own. She won't be forced to reveal the past, and so she'll have to somehow be cajoled. "The truth is subjective," she tells us early on. "You'll never find what you're looking for, even if you try." A near-complete narcissist who lives only to look good, granny is a piece of work you won't easily forget.

The more we learn about her and the history of Tom's family, the more awful the woman appears to be. There's a will (and the changing of inheritors), and an autobiography to be written (with a change in the ghost writer along the way). Grandma would rather flirt with her grandson than give up those secrets easily, and so the film, too, takes its sweet time. Yet it is never boring because we keep learning new bits and pieces, while seeing grandmother and her two sons more fully.

Finally, you might even find yourself with a kind feeling or two for granny (though these hardly outweigh the damage this thoughtless, selfish woman has done). The press release for the film promises a big "reveal," which turns out to be, in our current times, something relatively minor.

By the film's end, though, we've been shocked and moved and made to once again understand how difficult it is to get to the bottom of things. And yet Mr. Fassaert has managed to do his job in a way that seems about as honest and truthful as possible. He probes, gently and then more forcefully, but backs off when he must. Personal and painful, the movie goes about as far as it can.

The secret at the center of it all -- how could you do this to your children, and why? -- is never fully answered. The mystery of "family" remains just that. But once again, as with all good documentaries on this subject, the door has been opened a crack wider and we've seen something special and different, enticing and disturbing, that we can now add to that memory book of oddball families we have known.  Some of us might also realize that our own family could easily be included, too, even as we feel gratitude that ours is not nearly as oddball as what we've seen here. (That's Tom, above, in his somewhat younger days.)

A Family Affair -- supposedly released via Abramorama (but good luck trying to find the film on its web site), spoken in Dutch and English with English subtitles -- opens tomorrow, Friday. September 16, in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Music Hall) and New York City (at the Cinema Village). Elsewhere? Don't know, but one hopes to see this doc make its DVD and/or digital debut soon.

No comments: