By Katie Walsh | The Playlist February 29, 2012 at 3:57PM
A single shot was all it took to alter the course of one family mired in a quicksand of abuse and psychological manipulation. “Family Affair” begins with this one shot, an explosion of energy, an unconscious cry for help, the catalyst for upheaval. The film, directed by Chico David Colvard, is an exploration, an interrogation into the abuse, violence, dissolution of his family, and the forces that bind them and bring them back together. The opening sequence combines the recorded memories of Colvard and his sisters over images of the classic TV show "The Rifleman," describing the incident where Colvard, at age 10, trying to emulate his TV hero, picked up one of the loaded rifles his father had throughout the house and accidentally shot his sister Paula in the thigh. Her leg (eventually) healed. The secrets that came out as a result of this accident have been haunting the family ever since.
The accidental shooting is the red herring in the story of the Colvard family. When Paula was taken to the hospital, thinking she was going to die, she and her sister Angie confessed to the rape and sexual abuse by their father the two of them and their third sister Chiqui had been victim to for years. Their father was imprisoned, the family split up and their mother, a German woman, found Jesus and became estranged from her children. The film begins during Thanksgiving 2002, when David decided to film the family gathering, including his sisters and his father, whom he had not seen in 15 years. The footage captured here looks like any normal family interacting and celebrating the holiday, and it is this normalcy itself that inspires David to interrogate how and why his sisters are able to both speak so openly about the horrific things they were subjected to at the hands of this man, and still desire to have a fatherly relationship with him. At one point his sister Chiqui asks, “Why are you so interested in cameras and stuff? What’s your drive to push it over and over and over again?” He replies simply, “You.”
The documentary falls into the vein of films like “Tarnation,” where the process of recording and the filmmaker himself is partially the subject of the documentary. And while “Tarnation” turned its lo-fi aesthetic into a beautiful piece of found object post-modern art, “Family Affair” doesn’t attempt to mask anything with escapism into form. The film is entirely shot on home video and it’s not anything pretty look at. But the ugliness of the video matches the ugliness of the actions that the film questions and it seems only appropriate for such a disturbing and confusing tale. The aestheticism is not there, but the storytelling continues to peel back layer after layer, not revealing all of the details right away, until it builds into a story that verges on unbearable.
In some ways, the many juxtapositions of the sister’s voice over, old family photos, interviews with the parents, abstract reenactments and the meta-documentation of the filmmaker’s process in his line of questioning gets to be confusing. The real story gets obfuscated in all the conflicting accounts and excuses made by everyone involved. It ends up constructing a hazy, morally ambiguous fable that is hard for a viewer to grasp or find answers within. But that’s the way stories in families are constructed. Memories fade, excuses are made and somehow everyone puts aside the horrific past when a family member arrives on their doorstep. There are a few storytelling choices that seem out of place or misused -- intertitles with white text on a black background at first seem to serve in the same way that intertitles on shows like "Intervention" do: putting the most awful details into plain text instead of a personal account, but this usage gets muddled and lost throughout the film and the titles lose their storytelling power. Pulling back on some of the overlapping of photos and voice over and juxtapositions of accounts might have allowed for more room for each element to breathe, to let the viewer soak it in and to let each element work to the fullest extent of its power.
Paula, Angie and Chiqui do not sugarcoat a single detail in the film, and the stark, ugly truth contrasted with their (seemingly) loving acceptance of their father is hard for both David and the viewer to take. Ultimately, what we are left with to hold on to is the desire of one man to understand his family, ask the questions about what went wrong, and seek the truth in the murky memories. We probably all have the same desire sometimes, to push a victim to confront their abuser. To ask why. Colvard doesn’t necessarily come up with the answer and he doesn’t claim to. The film ends in a way that is as ambiguous as the conflicted feelings the viewer has throughout the tale. But he’s constructed a haunting, personal exploration into a family ripped apart by tragedy attempting to beat back the darkness and find the light. [B]
"Family Affair" premieres on OWN on Thursday, March 1st at 9pm EST.