Everything Gets Pulled into Question: Interview with Chico Colvard

On Friday, Family Affair opens at New York’s Quad Cinema. For filmmaker Chico Colvard, the day has been a long time coming. Not only has he been working on the documentary for years, but it’s also about his family’s difficult history. As the film begins, Colvard looks back on the crisis ignited when he was 10 years old and accidentally shot his sister in the leg. This led to a series of revelations, including his father’s longtime abuse of Chico’s three sisters. It also led to the break-up of the family and lingering emotional chaos.

Years later, after completing his law degree and teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Colvard started to sort through this past, interviewing his sisters and parents, looking for answers — or even the best questions to ask. The result is Family Affair, earning numerous festival awards and wonderful reviews, including here at PopMatters. In January, it was also the first film picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) Documentary Film Club.

As Colvard talked with PopMatters about the film now, we also considered how it came to be.

All our memories are shaped by what our families tell us or pictures we see. Family Affair begins as you say you don’t remember much “about that day” of the shooting, and then it explores a range of family memories without trying to make them all match. How does the film present memory, as a structural issue and also a source of material?

I can talk about it from a couple of vantage points. One, I was personally trying to go back and reconstruct what happened, what I was aware of and what I was unaware of, as the brother and also as the filmmaker trying to shape this film. Two, I was making the film. For both, one of the first things I did was try to create a chronology of events, a timeline. But even something as basic as when people were born became… a little bit elusive. That’s sort of the way my father was about things that most people just know about their parents. He would say things to me like, “I was born on this little island, in this shack, and back then, we didn’t keep records.” [When I was a boy], it was sort of cool. Now I realize that he was just full of shit and creating this sort of mythology. It wasn’t until I got a hold of his military records and arrest records that I found a date: June 16, 1941. And yet, it might also be the case that he didn’t know and so that’s just what he told the army when he enlisted.

That’s sort of my starting point. And then everything gets pulled into question. When you’re living with someone who’s that manipulative, everything that I assumed was true, I had to say maybe it wasn’t. The way that I was able to cobble together some semblance of truth was taking a holistic approach, and some investigative journalism. So I’d ask the same question to maybe five different people who were present during an event.

… who would have seen or remembered that event differently.

Right. And I could deal with those sorts of inconsistencies. But what really sort of threw me was when I went back and reshot interviews [with an HD camera, then decided to use the original, imperfect footage instead]. I would ask the same question and the response was different. So even their interpretation of an event changed. It didn’t happen multiple times, but one particular time was my sister Angelika talking about my mom’s response in the hospital, when they told her [about my father’s abuse]. The first time, she remembered that mama had freaked out. The second time, she remembered that our mother had said, “Okay, well, let’s call the police,” and was very practical. I asked her about the discrepancy, but I was wondering, what am I dealing with here?

And how did your own memories affect the filmmaking?

The shooting and my dad getting arrested, I remember that very clearly, but it feels like a lot of details of my childhood before the shooting sort of evaporated. I have friends whose lives are so well documented, in such great detail. But the few images you saw of me in the film [as a child], that’s pretty all the images that I have. And I had to work for years to get hold of those, pull them together from one sister and another sister. In the process of that investigation, my memory would be sparked. Part of it was, I was suppressing some memories to sort of shield myself, not to protect me from anything that happened to me as a child, but in many ways to shield me from remembering the absence of family, the absence of a mother, the absence of a father.

I was struck by something your father remembers, when he’s describing his approach to “parenting.” He talks about how he insisted his kids learn how to read and get good grades and be polite, even with “the raping and stuff like that.” As he talks, we’re looking at snapshots of your sisters, posing for the camera, very polite.

He had gone out of frame [when he said that]. It was only the second time I was with him with the camera, and it was really about him getting comfortable with it. Initially, he was talking about “kids these days” and parental control and sort of positioning himself as the good parent. I said to him, “I think I did pretty well, despite the fact that you weren’t around.” And that prompted him to sort of puff up and say, “From one to eight, these are the formative years.” And in the same breath where he’s talking about kids learning ABCs, he says, “There might have been all that raping and stuff.”

I knew the bite was important; clearly, it’s powerful, listening to him try to justify what he did, or failed to do. But visually it didn’t work, you hear this voice that’s off camera, so that’s how I came up with the montage. In my mind, in this and other sequences, the way I’m cutting it, it was like, “Say it to these girls that you did these terrible things to.”

Can you talk about making the film within an independent and documentary film community? How is that structured, with regard to mentors or a network of support?

The machine of making a film, the process of assembling a film, grappling with issues and confronting demons and all that, there’s no real formula for that. You just have to do it. But there are formulas for online editing or color correction or how to apply to a festival or how to secure licensing rights to music. That’s where the industry gets divided between people who share information and resources and those who don’t. It was sometimes hard, this being my first time. Like, even how to set up a website: what are the parts that need to be under the pages? Or the theatrical piece: do you want to do it yourself? Do you want to go with a booker? Do you want to go with a major distributor? How many lawyers do you need? How do I make contact? The 800 number on anyone’s website never works.

The “industry” concept might also work against too much collaboration and sharing, as it sounds like there’s a small amount of turf for which everyone competes.

That’s exactly right. And now at this stage, as the film has been out in the world for a year or so, since Sundance, you know who was competitive then. Now, it’s all business. For me, the educational outreach piece is really important: we work hard to bring the film to campuses and other community facilities. But I’m not competing with other filmmakers to screen at a university. I am competing with other films to get into a theater, to get a good review. And I’ve come to find out that when I pick up the phone and call a theater and try to book the film myself, from programmers who have told me… that they’re under the impression that if you’re doing it yourself, that all the bookers and distributors have passed on you.

And how would you know that when you begin?

There’s a learning curve. And the focus of that changes. All the workshops this year at Sundance were “how to do it yourself.” What do we do with the internet age and self-distribution? Up to that point, it was, you make your film, you do festivals, you either get a deal with HBO or something or you don’t. The end. The changes mean there’s been a learning curve also for the programmers at theaters. It really is a very incestuous world out there. Programmers are so used to dealing with Lionsgate or Zeitgeist: otherwise, a film doesn’t exist in their world. I’ve done all the major festivals, I’ve gotten probably one of the best deals ever for a documentary [with OWN]. I’m Oscar-qualified. The only thing sort of left is this thing I’m going to do in November, the week-long run in New York and reviews. It’s sort of like the little engine that could. I’m hoping that if there’s a good response to the film in New York, that will open up some doors to theaters elsewhere in the country.

I’m wondering about another component of this system, which is its general whiteness. Is anyone inside the “industry” or community talking about it?

Who’s going to talk about it? What would prompt the white programmer to talk to the other white programmer? Sometimes it reminds me of when I was in law school and you’d go interview with prospective firms. They all have the brochure pitch about equality and diversity. But when you actually go and look at the attorneys working at the firm, it wasn’t there. The firm didn’t look like the brochure cover.

I will occasionally be at a festival that will have some side program, usually “Youth, diversity, and film,” something or the other. They’ll have some relationship that’s working with a nearby school or disadvantaged kids. You know, “Let’s give the dark, disadvantaged kids some cameras.” And that seems to be enough for most people who attend these festivals, including programmers, writers, and broadcasters, the whole chain.

What I’m talking about is how few people I see that are doing the sort of work that I’m doing and presenting it at these festivals. I’m sure that person is out there, the one beside me and Stanley Nelson [whose film this year is Freedom Riders]. But I’ve been to a lot of festivals and I haven’t met that person. I know Robert Patton-Spruill, who did Do It Again. But he’s not even being presented as the frontman. That’s Geoff Edgers, the [white] producer, whom I know too. It’s not Geoff’s doing, but, Google that film, and tell me how many times you see a black face attached to it.

I know there are talented filmmakers out there, who happen to be black, who are working on really interesting issues that aren’t necessarily or exclusively race-related. I’m not seeing their work. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Or maybe it’s just this season. Maybe they said, “We had Lee Daniels and Precious and Chico and the incest film, and that’s enough.” I don’t think it’s deliberate, that they’re sitting around telling nigger jokes or something. But I also think it doesn’t pop up on their radar. And so it’s what they’re not talking about, what they’re not committed to, what they’re not thinking about when they think about film, when they think about filmmakers and producers. There’s plenty of room for what’s missing — which is filmmakers who happen to be black, who tell all kinds of stories about all kinds of different subjects.

In the case of my film, yes, the issue of race is present, but it’s not the film. And I’m happy to talk about it, it’s a fair question to talk about that as an element in the film. But, there were a number of people, like reporters, who, especially at the beginning, wanted to make the film about that. It’s a category you can assign without even seeing the film: just look at the poster with the photo of the two sisters and the headshot of the black filmmaker. That’s what it is.

What about communities before or around festivals?

I haven’t found a community of dark filmmakers in Boston, though I’ve found it in New York City, in a couple of places, the Black Filmmakers Consortium and Firelight. Even when I go to workshops in Boston for “struggling” filmmakers, trying to get their projects off the ground, I’m the only black person there.

I feel like I have the opportunity to draw attention to this, and I want to be able to do it in a way that’s not pointing fingers, but just raising some awareness. I’d like to imagine that White Programmer A and White Programmer B are having a beer somewhere, and they’re talking about this article, and saying, “I hadn’t considered it.”

How might it be considered?

I think Oprah, with the body of all her work, has really made a concerted effort to change this. And she’s not making it a “challenge.” It’s like when I went from eating meat to being a vegetarian, wondering what am I going to eat? I’m going to be so hungry!” This was like 20-plus years ago, and I would go into a restaurant and ask, “What do you have that’s vegetarian?” And people would get offended, like by saying you’re vegetarian, you were being hostile. Oprah’s success in large part is her inclusiveness. It’s like, when I go to some other countries, I see even on the Airplane Emergency Card, there are brown people also on the plane that may be crashing. Oprah gets that, she assumes a diverse audience. The film is in good hands.