Friday, January 23, 2009

Sundance 2009: All in the Family, part 2

[Film Fest] A few days ago, Scott touched upon the rise of documentaries directed by their subjects' family members, and wondered where they fit into cinematic journalism. I believe such movies have their place, but they only work when the filmmakers are honest about their relations and their approach.

In many cases, it seems as if the film's subject came up by default. It's a lot easier to make a documentary when your dad can call on all his friends to participate. While Shouting Fire presents an educational mosaic of the nation's most extreme free-speech practitioners, it only peripherally acknowledges that attorney Martin Garbus is director Lis Garbus' father. The film is well-made, but when Martin tells his daughter that there are other lawyers who protected free speech before and after him, one wonders why these people don't have more screen time.

However, there is a long tradition of biographies by family members, and there's no reason that these shouldn't exist in film form. Emily and Sarah Kunstler remember growing up as the children of a famous radical civil rights lawyer in William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe. They present a personal portrait that would have been nearly impossible for a detached journalist to capture.

One gets the feeling that the subject's daughters might actually be harder on their father than someone with more distance. When he decided to take on criminal cases for accused rapists and assassins, he put them at risk. They had to answer schoolmates’ questions about their dad's cases, and reconcile the construct of their father the hero with the guy who defended mob bosses and cop killers.

As is usually the case in cinema—whether fiction or non-fiction—the question isn't whether or not a filmmaker should tell a story, but how he or she tells it. The Kunstler sisters tell theirs with a perfect balance of the personal and the public. (Jeremy Mathews)

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