Film

Family Affair

Chico Colvard's film -- profound, subtle, and relentless -- is premised on questions. He asks repeatedly how his sisters have come to forgive their abuser.

Family Affair

Director: Chico Colvard
Cast: Pauline, Chiquita, Angelika, Elijah, Chico
Rated: NR
Studio: Oprah Winfrey Network
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-04-14 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
I understood the wrath of him.

-- Angie

"I do remember distinctly pulling the rifle up and pointing it at her head, and thinking, the rifleman wouldn't do that. " When Chico Colvard shot his sister Paula in their Radcliff, Kentucky home, he 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."

The start of Chico David Colvard's Family Affair is terrifying. 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. Premiering 14 April at Stranger Than Fiction, 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, when 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 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. 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.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image