[13 August 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Here’s an example where the very victims themselves are asking everyone, myself included, to put it aside so they can have this moment… They certainly deserve it, because they never had it growing up.
The start of Family Affair is terrifying. “There’s nothing about that day that was real,” narrates Chico Colvard. “I do remember distinctly pulling the rifle up and pointing it at her head, and thinking, the rifleman wouldn’t do that. ” When he shot his sister Paula in their Radcliff, Kentucky home, Colvard was just 10 years old. He liked to watch The Rifleman on TV, and as he speaks, you see a grainy Chuck Connors spinning and cocking his rifle, his signature move made surreal in a slow-motion loop. “It was make-believe,” Colvard continues. “I don’t remember pulling the trigger. But I remember the sound, you know, it was really deafening.”
Emulating the Rifleman, Colvard shot Paula in the leg. Another sister, Chici, remembers the mess in the kitchen, “mainly blood on the floor,” and Angie describes her own panicky reaction: afraid to use the family phone, she ran to a neighbor’s to call for help. All the children were afraid of their father, Elijah. In the hospital, her leg in traction and her mind fuzzy from medication, Paula remembers, “He tells me that if I survive this, I will not survive coming back home.”
As she speaks, the camera zooms gradually on still shots—the kitchen, a black and white snapshot of Elijah in Vietnam, little Chico smiling—each made odd and ominous when laid next to the other. These are the fragments the documentary pieces together, the bits of memory, imagination, and trauma that shaped the children’s lives. Opening 13 August as part of DocuWeeks at New York’s IFC Center, Family Affair explores the complicated relations among the siblings, their shared and very different experiences with their dad.
“As I get older and as I’ve gone through things in life, I realized [the shooting] was a blessing,” says Paula, “You saved my life.” Her brother understands what she’s saying—the event that Paula calls “my accident”—occasioned the revelation of family secrets, specifically, that Elijah had been abusing all three girls for years, sexually, psychologically, and physically. He was imprisoned for a year in 1979, released and eventually remarried. In 2002, the sisters and Elijah get together for Thanksgiving, Chico, who hasn’t seen his father for 15 years, is stunned.
“Ten years ago, David, our family was in shreds,” Paula tells her brother, extolling “the leaps and bounds that this family has made, the hurdles that we’ve overcome.” And this is precisely Colvard’s question, the puzzle he investigates with his film. How can his sisters spend time with this monster, apparently forgiving him? In movies, incest victims reject the offender, their anger and testimonies starting points for arduous healing processes. Chico has missed that process. “You’re just coming in at the end of the movie,” observes Chici. “It took years for us to get like that with daddy.”
It’s difficult for Chico to see them “like that.” His film—profound, subtle, and relentless—is premised on questions. He asks repeatedly how they’ve come to forgive their abuser, even as you see Chici downing her meds (she’s diagnosed schizophrenic, worries that her rages might affect her own children) or close shots of Paula’s scarred leg, still debilitating even after 22 surgeries and two bone grafts. Colvard doesn’t have to say that he feels guilty over her ongoing pain, or his ignorance as a boy: his sisters kept their horrors from him, hoping to protect him. As Colvard seeks to understand his sisters’ experiences, they can only begin to explain. “All of us had to go in our own directions and we had to go there by ourselves,” one narrates over a series of literalizing images—roads and houses shot from a car. “We’ve all taken our own roads and now these roads are leading back to each other.” Angie adds, “When we all got separated, we lost our lifelines. As dysfunctional as it was. we needed each other.”
“Dysfunctional” sounds almost charitable. Taking a cue from his sister’s phrasing, Chico’s story is structured as a kind of road trip: he takes his camera, and sometimes a friend, as he visits with each sister, their mother Renate (who left the family, remarried, and found God), and eventually, their father. But the film is not about the details of the abuse. At one point, disturbed when Angie (who became pregnant by her father, and had an abortion at 14) insists that she was complicit during sex (Elijah was “gentle” then, she says, as opposed to the brutal violence he inflicted otherwise). Colvard doesn’t find answers so much as more questions when he speaks with Judith Herman, an expert in “this area of trauma and recovery.” She explains the girls were like hostages, unable to imagine another way to be. The camera hangs over her shoulder as she watches one of Colvard’s interviews. “That’s the sick part of it,” Chici says while Herman nods toward Colvard and his camera. “Because you’re saying, ‘I enjoy sex with my father,’ and that’s what it was, sex.”
The film doesn’t judge her assessment, and neither does it blame the girls for their lack of choices. Neither does it try to calculate the horrors that shape the family. Instead, it wonders at their trauma and celebrates their survival. Sort of. As Colvard comes to see that Elijah won’t “understand why he did it, the documentary notes an accumulation of contexts, including his father’s own abuse by his mother as well as his evolving rage while he came of age in a segregated south. (Renate, a white German Jew who met Elijah while he was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam war, says he told her that he married her as “a way of paying back what the white people had done to his people.”)
As much as Family Affair seems poised for revelation, it is at last focused on the sisters’ survival and generosity. Elijah’s abject incapacity—for self-reflection, for remorse—doesn’t undo the project, but rather, reshapes it. During a family visit, the camera hovers near Elijah, eating cake in bed, his now large and lumpy shoulders and torso naked, his lower body under covers. It’s a startling and supremely disturbing image, as he laughs easily with his daughters and new wife in the room. But the film’s focus has changed by now, and Elijah’s story, a starting point, is not the end. That’s not to say the sisters live happily ever after, or the film offers resolution. Instead, it insists on contexts and connections, ways forward that might be found in memories.