Friday, February 4, 2011

FAMILY AFFAIR: or, Oprah's Family Affair?

I just caught FAMILY AFFAIR at the Siskel last night, with about 12 other people, on the second night of its two-night engagement. Granted, it was cold and a day-or-so after Chicago's (over-hyped) Snowpocalypse, also it screened in Siskel's late slot, 8:15.

The film is about...The film's plot tracks the brother-filmmaker, Chico Colvard, talking to his three older sisters (whose names I forget and are conspicuously absent from the film's website) about their youths defined by years (16 to 9, depending on the sister) of rape and physical abuse by their father.  More importantly, the film tries to examine how it is that all three sisters continue to have a relationship/contact with the the father that terrorized them.

There were a few stretches of film where I wondered why the material was left in, it just wasn't working for the film he seemed to be trying to make.  During the credit-roll, I noticed the OWN tag from Oprah.  I felt some of my questions were answered.  With Oprah's book club, there was the sense that Chosen Books were middling; that Serious Authors would snub the stigma of being attached to such a Tastemaker.  With FAMILY AFFAIR, there is a sense that a good film might lurk somewhere in what is presented - and the film is fine - but what we get is a fairly milquetoast (yes, even with this plot-line) presentation of material.  This is not to say something more sensational is what I was looking for, I was looking for something good, even grand.

Why such high expectations, you ask.  Of course, thank you for asking.  The film had a pull-quote from the Boston Globe:
One of the most psychologically complex movies ever made about either racial identity or abuse of any kind.
Needless to say, the film does nothing to approach such a claim.  It turns out the review is from Wesley Morris, protected by a pay-wall, though in his capsule reviews for Boston's Independent Film Festival he adds the film is a "nearly perfect documentary" and is "provocative and shocking in the way that a piece of nonfiction ought to be."  Again, the film I saw does not resonate with what Morris here reports, though we get a sense of how he judges exceptional documentary - not a rubric I'd subscribe to.  Which brings us back to Oprah.  If you know Oprah as little as I do, you probably still understand how the brief description above has Oprah written all over it - which is not necessarily bad, but probably is easy.

On a shortlist of traits my partner would attribute to me, fretting would be one, so take this all with a grain of salt.  Is it too early to worry about possible negative impacts Oprah's doc initiative will have on documentaries?  Though I know these reviews were from well before OWN picked-up FAMILY AFFAIR, is it too fretful to worry that some reviewers might begin to write excessively praising reviews of certain docs merely because of some perceived benefit of stroking Oprah's projects?  Is it too fretful to worry that otherwise good documentarians will begin contracting work with OWN and then creating the milquetoast offerings many of us fear OWN will likely support?  Is it too fretful to worry that an already limited amount of screens for documentary will become increasingly booked with OWN offerings?  (Though connected to the Oprah machinery, Siskel or FAMILY AFFAIR didn't seem to benefit from increased attendance - will this be the case in the future?)  Certainly the industry-as-a-whole will benefit from the influx of money for new jobs and projects.  And perhaps Oprah's new LA location offers Karina Longworth an additional solution for her LA indie-troubles.  But I still fret.  What will happen to documentary? What will people think of documentary now?

And yes, I'll admit that my frets are typically just that.

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