In the intimate documentary A FAMILY AFFAIR, Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert probes the dark corners of his family history in an attempt to understand his glamorous and enigmatic grandmother and the strange hold she has over her children even while living on the other side of the world. An invitation to visit her in South Africa starts him on a quest for answers that have so far remained elusive.
AFI spoke to the director ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
As a child, I felt as if I was an observer, an outsider to my own life — especially during moments in which I was confronted with big changes that I didn’t quite understand, such as my family’s emigration to a South Africa that was just abandoning apartheid, or the divorce of my parents that denied to tell us why. Through these events, I developed a general curiosity for things that are not in order or simply chaotic, as well as a deep longing for understanding the complexity of life, and not only my own. I think it’s this basic curiosity, combined with the ambition to express feelings that seem inexplicable in verbal language, that led me to documentary filmmaking.
What inspired you to tell this very personal story?
Ever since my first day on Earth, I’ve had my father’s camera on me — first, a silent 8mm small film camera, later a Video8 camera with sound. My father captured all the iconic moments of my life: my first moments in my mother’s arms, my first steps, my first birthday, my first day at school, everything. Over 14 years, he documented almost 100 hours of what he found most significant in his life: his own family. When he and my mother decided to divorce, however, he suddenly stopped filming and never touched a camera again. This parallel between the breakup of the family and the end of my father’s family films struck me when I started digging into my own family history. We seem to only record the moments we’re proud of and turn off the camera when we feel we have failed, or when the reality is too painful to capture. I wanted to fill the voids between the iconic happy family moments — to make a film about the longing for love within a family that has been separated through many events in the past. But, I also wanted to put an end to the suffocating silence within my own family.
This all triggered me to attempt to look behind the persistent myths and tales that I had been hearing about my own grandmother Marianne, whom I hardly knew.
What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
I started out with this naive idea of making a film about the “materfamilias” in my family, my grandmother Marianne, with whom everyone, especially my father, seemed to have many problems. Since I thought the problem was mainly between my father and grandmother, I thought I could tell the story from this observing perspective. Of course, everything changed when my grandmother pulled me into the problem she had with my dad and focused all her attention on me. She literally forced me into the film and confronted me with myself, hiding behind my own camera. She rightfully told me to also show myself, become more vulnerable. I was as much a part of the film, the story, as she and my dad were. This complicated the film enormously, since I had to be in it and at the same time create some professional distance and be a filmmaker.
In every documentary, you have dilemmas as a filmmaker, and you sometimes feel you’re exploiting your protagonist for the cause of the film. But in this film, it seemed even more complicated since I was a family member, not only participating in the film, and also a link between these two sides: my father with whom I feel very close, and my grandmother, who now opens up much more than I expected.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
I hope it resonates with people’s feelings and experiences with their own families. Maybe it can push people beyond simply judging each other to instead compel them to find insights into one another by talking and spending time together. I hope it gives individuals the courage to start addressing certain difficult topics in their own family.
Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location in which to screen A FAMILY AFFAIR?
I think it’s the heart of the country, even if we think of it only as the “rational” political capital. I think that basic human values all start with family love; that goes beyond any economical or geopolitical thinking, but should be at the core of any political decision.
A FAMILY AFFAIR plays AFI DOCS on Thursday, June 23 at 7:00 p.m., and Friday, June 24 at 1:15 p.m. Buy tickets here.