Family Films

You're wasting our time! I was in the army. Got married. I raised a family, worked hard, had my own business, that's all. That's nothing to make a picture about! It's ridiculous!

— Oscar Berliner to Alan Berliner, Nobody's Business

Personal memoirs are always difficult. After all, if there is honest revelation someone always gets hurt.

— Lilly Rivlin, commenting on Gimme a Kiss

In 1996, an unknown middle-aged school teacher named Frank McCourt published his autobiography. The book told of Frank's poverty stricken childhood in Limerick, in the west of Ireland. Though many of the related incidents were extremely tragic, McCourt recounted them in an ironic, humor-filled prose that quickly took Angela's Ashes to the top of the bestseller list, where it remained for 117 weeks. The message, not a new one, was clear to the publishers. The drama of family relations, if well told, and if able to touch some universal chord in the reader, could well find a very broad audience.

Unfortunately, this message has been absorbed to a much lesser extent in film. Today, the family feature film in Hollywood has been relegated to the sidelines, allowing the action comic book to handle the main plays. Nevertheless, here and there, the absolutely intriguing family-drama creeps through to the main screen in films such as Ordinary People, Bergman's

Scenes from a Marriage, The Celebration, from Denmark, and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies.

In contrast to feature films, the drama of family relations—the film that resurrects, analyses, dissects, and probes family history and interaction— has become one of the main strands of documentary film. But then, family film itself is just one example of the growing attention to what one can call the new personal film.

This emphasis on the personal in documentary is a comparatively recent phenomenon, dating from the 1970s onward. It's a revolution due to many causes, not the least being the influence of new film schools, the advent of cinema verite, the cheapening of film and video equipment, and a deeper social probing by young independent filmmakers. The personal documentary, in fact, reaches out beyond films on family and embraces films on women, the Holocaust, gay and lesbian relationships, problems of minorities, and the Aids phenomenon. Obviously, the categories intermingle and overlap. For the purpose of this book, however, and because of limitations of space, I merely note down a few observations about the making of family films.

For the sake of simplicity, I have divided family films into two groups. First come the family films made by third party observers. This includes films such as Allan King's A Married Couple and series such as Craig Gilbert's An American Family and Bill Jersey's Six American Families. Most of these films are done or have been done in cinema verite style. The second group of films are what I refer to as insider films. They are revelation documentaries, often concerned with roots and origins, and their creative problems, for a variety of reasons, tend to be more complex than those made by outsiders.

The insider projects also can be divided into two groups—the diary film and the history cum analysis film. Examples of the diary film include Ed Pincus's Diaries, Alfred Guzzetti's Family Portrait Sitting, and Jonas Mekas's Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. What characterizes them is, again, the use of verite to follow ongoing action and an accumulation of detail over time that is presented but not usually analyzed— though here Guzzetti's film is an exception. In short, you go, you shoot, you question, and you edit. And, it is hoped, meaning emerges.

The history cum analysis film, which is the larger group of the two groups of insider films, includes classics such as Amalie Rothschild's Nana, Mom and Me, Martha Coolidge's An Old Fashioned Woman, Maxie Cohen's Joe and Maxie, Ira Wohl's Best Boy, Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied,

Sue Friedrich's The Ties That Bind, Michelle Citron's Daughter Rite, and Martin Scorsese's Italian American. Among the newer films in this group, and quite outstanding, are Lilly Rivlin's Gimme a Kiss, Steve Thomas's Least Said Soonest Mended, Alan Berliner's Nobody's Business, Deann Borshay Liem's First Person Plural, and Jan Krawitz's In Harm's Way.

Some of these documentaries are portraits. Some are autobiographical confessions. Some are shaped as investigations. What is often common to this group is the need to understand the present through an examination of one's origins. Martha Coolidge wants to know more about her grandmother. Maxie Cohen and Lilly Rivlin want to know more about their fathers. Steve Thomas and Dean Liem want to know more about their mothers. Ira Wohl looks at the problem of a family letting go of its retarded son, and Marlon Riggs examines what it means to grow up black and gay.

Yet all transcend home movies. And this is the biggest task: to make your films ascend and fly, so that they speak not merely to your immediate family and circle but have the ability to touch on the universal and eternal. In short, you are faced with a hell of a challenge.

Now at this point, when you turn and say "I bought your book, help me," I have to confess I have led you astray. There are no easy solutions. There are no accepted ways of doing things—no pat formulas, no easy prescriptions. But what I can offer are a few hints and a few warnings that can at least keep you away from the mine fields. The sections that follow address the main points to keep in mind.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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