Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Family Histories


Matt Turner looks at filmmakers filming families, either their own or those of others, and what the implications of this can be.

Family can hold many different meanings depending on who is being asked. It might be the the individuals you’ve known the longest, or those that you choose to keep near. It might be something born of love or blood relation, of circumstance or community, of mutual interest or lifestyle choice, or from something else entirely. Several films at this year’s festival feature family stories, but not necessarily narratives that arrive in expected ways. In some, the filmmakers are filming their own families, whereas some direct their lens onto others. These films show the fluidity of what family as an idea can mean, and the pleasures and pains it can contain.

In Cyril Aris’ The Swing, the family structure seems sacred. So much so that when a daughter dies the truth is kept from the family’s ageing patriarch – for fear it disrupt the equilibrium, and destabilise him. The family in question is Aris’ own, and his angle on the situation is measured yet moving, capturing the developing scenarios with calm, considered precision and a poise that few could manage given his proximity to the material at hand.

Also autobiographical, Zita Erffa’s The Best Thing You Can Do With Your Life surrounds the filmmaker’s tie to her brother, a close relationship that is ruptured by his decision to join the ultra-conservative Catholic order of the Legionaries of Christ, emigrating to America, resulting in the cessation of their closeness, and much of their contact. Granted rare visitation rights, she travels to the commune to reconcile their relationship and to film what goes on there, and what is going on with him, The resulting film is a captivating portrait of the personal costs of devotion to such a complicated, all-controlling cause.

Another film with a complicated familial situation, the characters in Kim Hopkins’ Voices of the Sea also experience a developing distance. In a remote Cuban fishing village, a young mother wishes to cross the ocean in pursuit of the possibility of something better, whereas her husband is keen to stay where he is, where life, whilst certainly difficult, is at least familiar. Charting the challenges this community faces empathetically and concentratedly, Hopkins creates a beautiful portrait of a community in turmoil, looking at a fraught family situation that sits at the centre, becoming emblematic for wider struggle.

América has another family facing reality, as after their father is prevented from being present, the three sons of aging América return home to care for her as she becomes increasing infirm. An unusual family unit, their unorthodox ways are captured carefully and compassionately by filmmakers Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll, who roam around the family, embedding themselves so neatly as to become another moving part. A delicate film about the pleasures and pressures of caregiving, América’s family situation, whilst unusual, is more beautiful than most.

Filmmakers from these films and others (including Donal Foreman, director of The Image You Missed, a family film of a different order) will gather to discuss filming those close to them in ‘The Personal Lens‘, whilst in ‘Audio Ethics‘ and ‘The Ethics of Seeing‘ other filmmakers and audio producers will discuss the ethical concerns that arise more generally, but especially so when looking so close to home.