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Sundance Review: Family Affair

By  · Published on January 25th, 2010

One of the great accomplishments of the Sundance Film Festival has been its traditional championing of movies that take guts to make, that come replete with risks both personal and professional. No risks could be more severe, on both counts, than those undergone by documentarian Chico Colvard in making Family Affair, his heartbreaking depiction of the ruinous imprint his abusive monster of a father left on his three older sisters.

A project many years in the works, Colvard asserts his aim early on: to understand how his sisters could have forgiven a man who terrorized them for years, in the most unimaginable fashion. To explore such distressing territory requires a series of brutally candid interviews with his family members, which collectively retrace those terrible traumas and reveal their lasting effects.

This is a challenging picture, an intimate therapy session writ large as the director and his siblings work out their complex feelings on camera. Periodically it’s almost too voyeuristic. The film probes such intense psychological recesses that one wonders whether it’s really meant for public viewing. The filmmaker’s sisters question and speculate about his motives while bravely joining him on his journey through the past.

There’s a scattershot quality to Colvard’s searching that lends the film an appropriate rawness, promulgating the sense of the audience joining him on his complex path of self-discovery. The honest, abstract approach, with the filmmaker grasping for his way through the morass, provides a welcome counterpoint to the current wealth of overly processed documentaries centered on more concrete themes or issues. It’s messy, unstructured and full of the tangible pain of unchecked emotional scars.

The film does, however, find its compelling centerpiece in Chico’s trip to Wisconsin to pay an unannounced visit to the mother who long ago abandoned the family. Her reception of him and the frank, charged conversation that ensues powerfully reveals the peripheral destructive effects of pervasive abuse. The message is clear: the web of evil spurred by the filmmaker’s father – a hulking blubbery mess who appears on camera and barely so much as mentions his actions – ensnared and destroyed more than its most immediate victims.

Family Affair is a tough sit, a cinematic gut check filled with deplorable anecdotes, awash in regret, shame and sadness. Playing in Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition (and, if I had to bet, eventually finding a home on HBO), it’s a decidedly unglamorous project, not the sort of thing that lends itself to enthusiastic buzz and endless dissections across the Internet. Yet, it’s a courageous achievement, a rare example of a filmmaker exposing himself without restrictions, unearthing a dark story of personal and universal significance, with just the right measure of hope.