I watched a documentary this week: A Family Affair by the Dutch filmmaker, Tom Fassaert. It was the third time I’ve seen it, and each time the film leaves me shaking my head at the ease with which it demonstrates how influenced we are by what has gone before us; how opening our eyes can make such a difference; and the powerful way the human spirit always seems to know how to right itself given the slightest chance. It also offers insight into how quickly we can turn things around, especially when we recognise the progress that can be made from generation to generation.
The first time I saw it was one year ago, and I was moved to write to the filmmaker:
‘It is difficult to find words for the experience. Beautiful, arresting and enlightening are a few which spring to mind. Your work is a stunning example of the causes and effects of human behaviour. It has so much to do with our early environment and the decisions we make based on what happens to us, and your film highlights that in such exquisite and at times uncomfortable detail. Thank you.’
The documentary is a portrait of Fassaerts’s family, focusing primarily on his 95-year-old grandmother, but also including himself, his father, and his father’s brother in the story. It leaves us in no doubt about the consequences of people’s words and actions, the decisions we make, the behaviour we exhibit, and our monumental effort to normalise, forget, repress, or reframe what happens to us.
The story spreads out across 80 years and four generations. With the first and the last generation acting mostly as sign posts of progress, the camera rests on the two central characters: the grandmother and her younger son (the filmmaker’s father). The film offers us repeated examples of how humans unconsciously absorb the pain of life, hoping perhaps to dampen or ignore it, only to see it inevitably express itself in one way or another. There is pain and hurt everywhere in this film. It’s like watching damage in human form. All caused, it seems, by unfulfilled yearning for love and acknowledgement.
Filmmaking – specifically, the documentation of family life – runs through each generation and one cannot help but conclude that such readiness to document everyday details has bestowed a level of ease (as well as theatre) on family members, allowing them to be themselves more fully than the viewer would sometimes wish. It is uncomfortable and heartbreakingly real.
Eventually, though, greater reflection and awareness emerge through the generations, beginning with Fassaert’s father, a gentle man who bears his family history with dignity and strength, despite the obvious suffering of being repeatedly pushed away. Both the father and his older brother are shown separately and eloquently giving voice to a deep-seated, long-standing desire to experience even the simplest gesture of a loving relationship with their mother. Both break down when doing so, and both exhibit the same well-practised resolve to quell the emotions which threaten the surface of their respective lives.
Each generation is broken by the previous one (and by life’s circumstances). However – and this is the main lesson of the film – within four generations, we go from a man who betrayed his family and suffocated their spirit, to a woman manipulatively desperate for love and attention; to a father who wishes only to be close to his mother; and finally to a young filmmaker with the desire to ask questions and the courage to allow the silences to answer.
That generational progress is the beacon which shines through the last two generations of the film. The lesson is clear: we inflict pain on each other, but if we recognise and acknowledge what we do, and we remember that our spirit is self-correcting by nature, we can turn things around astonishingly quickly.