Matt's Reflections on Silverdocs: All in the Family

Docs In Progress was lucky this year to have not one but two people on the ground at Silverdocs. Matthew Radcliff who has been contributing film reviews throughout the year to our blog filed his own report on the festival.


Looking over my notes from Silverdocs, I noticed themes that were woven through the program. What stood out the most for me were the large number of films about family, both the one that we are born into and the one that we make for ourselves. A number of the films were about parents letting go of their children. The film most obviously following this theme was The Kids Grow Up, directed by Doug Block and taking place during his daughter€™s final year in high school. Block filmed his daughter throughout her life; as a documentary filmmaker, his home movies involved a lot of interviews, and they are woven throughout the film in a way that I imagine mimics his own memories of her childhood. For the film is not about his daughter growing up, but about Doug coming to terms with her having already grown up. It is a wonderful meditation on parenthood, and does what good documentaries should do: it lets the audience see the world from another person€™s perspective. I don€™t have children of my own, but The Kids Grow Up let me understand a little better my own parents.

Last Train Home centered on a family in China, living in an entirely different world than Doug Block. Yet at its heart it was also a story of parents struggling over being apart from their children. The Zhangs have two children they are trying to take care of, and to do so have spent the last sixteen years working in factories thousands of miles away. After their daughter, the oldest, was born, both parents left their village looking for work in China€™s industrial centers. The girl, and later her younger brother, was left on the family farm with the grandparents. Working long hours and living in very frugal dorms, the parents only return to the family during the Chinese New Year holiday. But of course, the 130 million other migrant workers in China are also trying to get to their homes at the same time. This causes some chaos, as you might imagine. Director Lixin Fan did an incredible job capturing the massive crush of people waiting days for a train to appear, as well as the meager conditions in the factories and back on the farm. The Zhangs see all their efforts possibly come to naught as their daughter, angry at their constant absence, leaves school to take a job as a migrant factory worker herself.

The separation of the migrant worker from her family is also the heart of Familia, which is about a poor family in Peru when the mother travels to Spain to take a job as a maid. Her young son is left behind with the father and their older children. We see the burden this places on the mother, spending months and years away from the family. But we also see how the absence of his partner affects the family who stays behind. The filmmakers achieve a very intimate observational style in this film.

I did not get to see Monica and David, but I heard director Ali Codina speak on a panel at the conference. She pointed out a secondary theme of €œletting go in her film about the marriage of two adults who both have Down syndrome. The two mothers are caught in the middle ground of supporting and guiding their children, but also letting them live their own life. Like all children, but maybe more than most, Monica and David are independent yet still need a lot of help. Can you let someone go yet still hold them close and safe? I am looking forward to seeing how this film, which will be on HBO in an upcoming season, addresses this question.

The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan was another film that I missed. Directed by Henry Corra, it is the story of a family still hoping for the reappearance of McKinley Nolan, an Army soldier who was MIA in Vietnam. What lengths will the family go to when an Army buddy, forty years later, thinks he sees McKinley walking down the street? But there is a question of whether or not it is McKinley Nolan, so his family travels to Vietnam and Cambodia looking for answers.

The death of a child is a tragic event that demands a private acceptance and grieving process. Director Amir Bar-Lev€™s The Tillman Story, the closing night film for Silverdocs, documents the saga of the Tillman family as they resist government efforts to dictate how Pat Tillman, who was killed in action in Afghanistan, would be remembered. Pat was a pro football player who enlisted in 2002, joined the Army Rangers, and was killed in 2004. The administration portrayed Pat as a hero, and used him as a symbol of support for the war, while hiding the fact that he was killed by friendly fire. Bar-Lev€™s film investigates what really happened, and shows how the family fought to learn the truth. Their only goal was to allow Pat to be remembered for the totality of his personality, rather than the government€™s uni-dimensional façade.

One of the short films, The Space You Leave, focused on three parents whose children have gone missing. It has been two or three or ten years since they were last seen, and the parents have no idea why they are gone. Did they run away, will they return, are they even still alive? The elegiac images captured the mood of expectant waiting that seems to permeate each parent€™s life. Another short, Arsy-Versy, took the opposite tack, focusing on a mother whose son wouldn€™t leave home. Lubos, the son, is a free-spirited fifty-something who lives in his own world. He studies bats, among other equally unusual hobbies, and his mother understandably worries about what will happen after she is gone. His happy-go-lucky take on life is a very refreshing antidote to our modern desire to be constantly moving forward.

Some of the films looked not at letting go, but building up. How do you create a family? In particular, Beyond This Place was a personal look at the developing relationship between the filmmaker, Kaleo LaBelle, and his father, Cloud Rock. Other than two short visits, they had not been together for thirty years, and throughout the film we see them work to build a relationship. However, it must be said that Cloud Rock, an idealistic hippie devoted to psychedelics and bicycling, does not do much of the work. Refusing to look at the past, nor to admit to any responsibility as a father, he makes for a tough character to like. But through Kaleo€™s acceptance of his father€™s lifestyle, the audience also comes to respect Cloud Rock, or at least not hate him. Beyond This Place is another film that led me to reflect on my own family, and well worth seeing.

The winner of the Sterling US Feature Award, Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy) was also focused on building a family relationship, in this case, through adoption. Director Stephanie Wang-Breal embedded herself with a family from Long Island. With two biological sons and an adopted Chinese toddler, the Sadowskys decide to adopt another girl from China, but this time it is an older girl. Renamed Faith, the 8-year old must learn English as well as how to become a part of the family. At times the director helps by translating for Faith, but when she is most upset and therefore most in need of translation, Faith speaks Cantonese and not the Mandarin that Wang-Breal knows. The communication troubles are clearly heart-breaking for Faith and Donna Sadowsky, but also at times it becomes aggravating for the audience. The film does not underplay the difficulties in adding a new link to the family chain.

In Mrs. Birk€™s Sunday Roast, the title character is a Japanese woman married to an English man. In order to make him feel comfortable, she had learned proper English cooking. In fact, she went on to teach English cooking, including hosting a TV show. She received a lot of resistance to her teaching traditional English cooking; surprisingly, the opposition was due not to her ethnicity, but because English food was not considered worthy of being taught! To my mind, the central question in the film, was to what lengths will a person go for their family? For Mrs. Birk, learning to cook and enjoy an entirely new style of food was necessary to support her family.

The Ponce family in Circo owns and operates a small circus in Mexico, appropriately named Circo Mexico. They travel from village to village, putting up and taking down the big top almost every day. As outsiders in nearly every place they go, the family becomes very insular, with an attitude of us (circus people) against them (the settled majority). It is owned by the grandfather in the family, but primarily operated by his son, Tino, causing tensions within the family. Tino, his wife Ivonne, and their four children do most of the work at the circus: putting up the tents, announcing the circus to the local town, and even perform the acts themselves. Three of the grandfather€™s other sons each run their own circuses, and when the extended family gets together to celebrate the Day of the Dead, money is a large topic of conversation.

It is clearly difficult to maintain the separation between travelling and settled peoples, as several members of the Ponce family have left the circus life to marry. At the same time, those who remain have spouses who have married into circus life (Ivonne literally ran away to join the circus and Tino) but are still treated as outsiders by the grandparents. One of Tino and Ivonne€™s young girls is actually their niece, whose mother left the circus for settled life. Tino€™s brother, Tacho, leaves and takes a regular factory job to stay with a woman he loves. At the end of the film, he is back, but Ivonne has left along with all but Cascaras, the oldest child. How long Cascaras will stay is a question, though, judging by the encounters we see between him and local village girls, who seem quite taken with him.

Sometimes, a family is what you make it. In The Housekeeper, a very close relationship has developed between a very elderly Orthodox priest and his almost-as-elderly housekeeper. In this short, the devotion is similar to that of long-married couples, as the woman goes through typical domestic chores and the priest spends his days studying and praying. Another short that I did not get to see was The Veil, a small portrait of life in a convent. The description I heard from other festival-goers indicated that it showed how the nuns had developed a family atmosphere. One scene in particular caught my attention, when they are welcoming a new person into the group, preparing a young woman about to take her vows.

Quadrangle, one of the short films, pointed out the tensions that exist even in families that we choose for ourselves. Back in the 1970s, two families became close €“ very close €“ and ended up merging in a €œlove quadrangle. At first it was simply a risqué situation of swapping spouses, but when a fire forces the two families into the same house, they merge into one large family. As in every family, tensions flare, and the quadrangle splits into two new family units, with the spouses permanently swapped. Quadrangle shows that a family is what you make it, but that doesn€™t necessarily make it any easier.

For a portrait of a unique group €œmarriage, Silverdocs also featured Stones in Exile, a new documentary about the making of the Rolling Stones album, Exile on Main Street. Recorded at an estate that guitarist Keith Richards was renting in the south of France, during the band€™s €œtax exile from Britain, Exile was a landmark album for the Stones. Unfortunately, the midnight screening was too late for me, so I had to miss seeing the film.

Guggenheim Award honoree Frederick Wiseman chronicled another contentious pairing during the 1970s in his film Sinai Field Mission. The film was set on the Sinai Peninsula, at the border station that the US used to monitor the truce between Israel and Egypt after their 1973 war. The US mission was composed of diplomats and electronic technicians from the State Department and a Texas company, E-Systems, Inc. Living and working together at the US base in the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula causes the two distinct cultures, good-old-boy and government-bureaucrat, to learn to co-exist. Juxtaposing scenes of processing paperwork and drinking out of a cowboy boot, Wiseman captures the ebb and flow of tensions within the US mission. Simultaneously, we see the protracted interactions between Egypt and Israel, who use the US diplomats as go-betweens. Outside of the film, the mission was a success, leading to the landmark 1979 peace accords negotiated by President Carter.

One film that must be mentioned is Family Affair, and sadly I was not able to catch any screenings at the festival. Director Chico Colvard probes the complicated dynamic in his own family, after it was revealed that their father abused his sisters for many years. While Colvard had cut off ties with his father, he learns that his sisters have maintained a familial relation with their abuser.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the festival was this resonance between films that on the surface do not appear related. Of course, family is one of the most universal human experiences and will therefore make an appearance in most stories. Coming next, I will summarize the films that fit the theme of €œusing art as an escape.

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