Editor's Note: The Kids Grow Up airs June 19, Father's Day, on HBO. This article was published in conjunction with the film's theatrical release last fall.
When we last left off, filmmaker Doug Block was discovering surprising things about his parents that made him-and us-question both whether we really knew our parents, and more bluntly, whether we really wanted to know about them. 51 Birch Street resonated with audiences around the world who recognized the mysteries and mystique about parents and parenting in their own families. One critic in Ecuador opened his review of the film, "51 Birch Street is everyone's address." And Block managed to sell the film to both Al Jazeera and Israeli TV.
In what seems to be an answer of sorts to that film, Block, facing the prospect of losing his daughter Lucy to adulthood and college, decided to document her last year at home. The Kids Grow Up, which opens October 29 through Shadow Distribution, not only brings his (and his wife Marjorie's) parental prowess to the fore, but ruminates on other themes like letting go, the prospect of an empty nest marriage and growing older.
It seems that with these two films, as well as with his 1999 film, Home Page, in which we meet him and his family for the first time as he explores the early stages of the Web culture, he has helped allay whatever resistance there may have been to the personal documentary genre. Home Page depicted the early stages of what would come to be known as blogging, and hinted at the public/private ambiguity that would take hold in the 2.0 era. We caught up with Block by phone as he was preparing the opening of the film
IDA: In reflecting on your last three films--beginning with Home Page, then 51 Birch Street and now The Kids Grow Up--there seems to be a trilogy or triptych of sorts at work here. Home Page is ostensibly one filmmaker's inquiry into the Web 1.0 subculture and how it impacts our lives, but it's really about your own personal journey through this culture. You incorporate home movies and personal footage, and you're an on-camera presence for the first time. In putting these films together, side by side by side, do you see them as a trilogy--intended or not?
Doug Block: I do, but that would confuse the issue with the next film. It's sort of like a continuing saga, almost like one big film, coming at it in different ways. How Home Page became personal and the reaction to it informed everything else--and certainly gave me the courage to go forward with 51 Birch Street.
Two things happened with Home Page: Here I was thinking I was doing a film looking outward at these kids who were doing these interesting things on the Internet, which we now call blogs, but they were called personal home pages. They were doing the most personal of personal home pages, and the one doing the most personal of all was Justin Hall, our main character, who, if you look on Wikepedia, is actually credited as the Web's first blogger. The whole idea of people putting their personal lives out there so publicly, so personally...and Justin really challenged me in many ways--he challenged me to put up my own home page.
So I wrote about the making of the film, and I tried to keep it at that. It inevitably got more personal; it was hard not to. When you write anything, you think you're going to be critical and detached and just write about what happens, but it's almost impossible not to bring personal stuff into it.
But the more personal my blog entries became, the better the feedback from the readers and the more interest there was in it. As Justin predicted, people will find you on the Web. And sure enough, The New York Times found me, and they wound up doing a full-page article a full year before we were finished with the film about this process of not only writing about the film as I'm making it, but having the film change because of feedback that I'm getting from people in the process in making it.
I'm proud of the film, and here's what I took from it: Someone made a passing remark that stayed with me for a long time. The film premiered at Sudnance, then it went to Rotterdam and I talked to a distributor there. I asked her what she thought of the film. She said, "I hated your lead guy; he was so irritating. But your family--now they were interesting." And when all this stuff happened around 51 Birch Street, and in looking at Home Page, I thought, They are good on camera. My boring family somehow rises to the occasion with a camera on them.
IDA: And it started around this discovery you had made--you had always been making home movies or b-roll of your family and you have this footage and made this discovery that inspired 51 Birch Street.
DB: I thought about that for a long time: What is it about my family that I've been able to capture them on film? My "home movies" are somehow worthy of being in bigger stories. What is the dynamic that lets them be comfortable with me shooting? I think with Lucy, it was always fun; it was a game to her. She was always really curious about the camera and she loved shooting herself. We had this ritual of doing interviews with each other; that continued on until she was about 12 or 13. It appears that I shot much more than I did.
Ross McElwee and I joke about that all the time that that's part of our mythology--all we do is shoot our families with our cameras. I actually wrestled with that in the editing of The Kids Grow Up: Do I have to explain that I actually make films for a living? My family got used to it; they think it's natural for people who shoot home movies and video to move around and change angles and get up close and move back--like a documentary filmmaker.
IDA: I wanted to bring up home movies--both in your work and in general. Home movies reveal a different truth about the subjects. They're made for private use, to document experiences and preserve moments in time. But despite the amateur camerawork and the self-consciousness of subjects before the camera, there's an honesty and poignancy in home movies.
DB: There's another aspect to that, but I think that documentary makers look for moments that reveal who people are. When I shoot my family, I hate shooting my daughter when she plays in a concert at school because I want to see the performance; I don't want to be the guy who had to capture it. I like shooting a normal day--my favorite scene in The Kids Grow Up is when she gets her ears pierced. This was never with a film in mind. It just seemed like a really important moment for her, and it was. When she got her driver's test for her license, her affect was so similar it reminded me so much of that moment when she got her ears pierced that when I got back in the car with her after she got the license, I asked her, "So, do you feel like your life has changed?"--because I remember asking her that when she got her ears pierced, and it worked so well in the film when I put it together. It's such an organic flashback and it made for a really great scene. It's about the way we come in and out of memory--what reminds us of something and then how we bring a memory into the present.
IDA: When you finished 51 Birch Street and released it, and played it before audiences, was that when you were sensing that the idea for The Kids Grow Up would be your next film--that the idea of coming to terms with or trying to understand your parents and understanding what parenting is would be a response to what you learned and discovered in making 51 Birch Street?
DB: Actually, I started The Kids Grow Up long before 51 Birch Street; I had to interrupt doing it to make 51 Birch Street. For the longest time I tried to incorporate them together. I tried to bring Lucy into 51 Birch Street; I couldn't do it. Every time I tried, it just seemed wrong. They were two separate stories, and she didn't belong in this one because it was me working it out with my parents, and I'm the kid.
IDA: Did what you discovered about your family, and what your father shared with you on camera help catalyze what you wanted to accomplish in The Kids Grow Up?
DB: It certainly gave me the confidence to go back to it. What I wrestled with was when we were in distribution, it was also the time that Marjorie was depressed; it was really hard to think of anything while that was going on. But when she recovered, which was right around the time the release was finally winding down and Lucy was coming back from her year overseas, I woke up one morning and I thought, Within a year she'll be gone! How did that happen? Was I so focused on my filmmaking that I wasn't even there raising this kid? It's such a shock. Every parent has that moment when it really dawns on you that they're going to be gone and it just won't ever be the same. It's not like they're not going to come back and visit and you'll have this great relationship with them when they're gone. It's going to be more adult--and it has been that with Lucy, but it's not the same because the family unit isn't the same any more.
In that moment I saw the end of the film: We're going to drop her off, and we're going to go home to an empty apartment. Seeing the ending of the film gave me a structure for a story: the film is about her last year at home and about me adjusting to this idea that my only child is going to leave. The clock is ticking and that provides the momentum for the story, and then the 18 years of footage now becomes memory. And the fun part is, with memory you can go anywhere and anytime. The present day is chronological, while memory is not. Looking at it now I'd say that every moment going back to the past feels right--organic and motivated. It doesn't feel like it's a gimmick that we're just putting in there because we can. That was really important, striking that balance between past and present.
Personal films are so hard to make. I think they're the hardest form of documentary to do. But when they're done well, they're just so powerful and so fascinating. We love families; we're all fascinated by families. But you want to preserve family stories in a way that it doesn't look like the filmmaker is working out his or her therapy; they're bringing you into their story and giving you the ability to project yourself in there.
I wanted to be their entryway into this story, and that was my role in 51 Birch Street. With The Kids Grow Up, I'm more of a character driving the story, which is very daunting.
IDA: In this film, in which you're dealing with a crucial phase in parenting, you document Lucy's last year at home, but it's pretty clear you've been documenting her life all her life. What role has the camera played in your relationship with her? How is the dynamic different without the camera?
DB: It's very similar. The camera is almost like another character. The medium throughout which I show our relationship, I thought would be a lot of fun. We refer so often to the camera; even when we're young, I'm trying to teach her how to hold it. There's a whole scene in which she resists my teaching. How better to illustrate parenting than to have me trying to assert authority and expertise? She's resisting it; she's asserting her independence. And that's exactly what the parent-child dynamic is, so what more fun could it be to cover our relationship through the camera?
IDA: How did Lucy feel about being the subject of a film both during and after the process? Has she seen the film with an audience?
DB: She saw it at Silverdocs. I think it was good that she wasn't around when we went through this festival run. She's happy to put this whole thing behind her. She's not avoiding the idea that it's opening, but she's not thrilled about it. She's just a normal kid who doesn't love being the center of attention.
She thinks it's a really good film. She's a tough critic, so that part's good. There are one or two scenes that make her really uncomfortable, but she says, "Even now I know that in a couple of years I probably won't be bothered by them at all, but this time I'm really glad that I have my family on film this document of my childhood."
She feels like she's gotten perspective on it now and she feels quite distanced from the kid who's on film there. Three years later, it doesn't even totally feel like her there. I think her response has been really healthy; she sort of pretends it's not even happening. That's what she's mostly been doing these last few years, and we barely talk about it.
Before she went back to college for her senior year, I wanted to get an interview with her about her reaction to the film. She had just seen the documentary Winnebago Man. She was really intrigued by it, but she became really upset about how the filmmaker treated the subject--every time they asked him a question, they interrupted him and wouldn't let him speak for himself. And she started going into a harangue about documentaries. She said, "You documentary filmmakers have this agenda," and I said, "Oh really? Shall I get the camera?"
I hadn't filmed her in three years. We talked for 45 minutes; it was an amazing conversation. She said, "Dad, I'm sorry I didn't give you what you wanted. I know I wasn't really that articulate; I couldn't really say what was going on." I said, "I didn't want anything. What do think I wanted? I wanted you to be exactly who you are. I had no idea what I was going to get when I shot with you; I just wanted to find out who you were. It would have been weird to have a 17-year-old girl pour out her inner feelings to her dad. What was so much fun was your evasiveness, which was actually more truthful. That's how I was with my parents; I didn't tell them anything. The way you were evading was so much fun; we knew exactly what you were doing and that was great. That's what I was looking for. I was just reacting to how you were and that's what I wanted. I wanted to convey what it was like to be a parent and what the dynamic is."
IDA: In the process of making this film, what did you discover about being a parent, and about parenting in general?
DB: I was so focused on trying what I found funny or interesting about the experience of being a parent. I really wanted to do something about parenting itself. I wasn't really focused on what am I going to learn as a parent. It was more like, How can I convey what this is like? What really struck me is one thing I learned about parenting is that you don't have any clue whatsoever about how to be a parent when your kids are born. Everybody is going to bend your ear with advice; you have all those how-to books, talk shows, magazines-- everything is geared to advising you on how to do it, and preparing you.
If you're a good parent, you actually read the books because a big part of your role is you want your kid, when the time comes, to be able to have the wherewithal to have a really happy, thriving, healthy life apart from you. So in many ways you're preparing them for a life independent of you. But nobody prepares you for a life independent of them. And that was the aspect of parenting that I decided to focus on. What is life going to be like when you're no longer an everyday parent? And then you realize, Oh, I'm making a film about marriage. Being a kid is a subset of being married. The kids come into your life after you're married. And they leave and hopefully you're still together and you have to deal with that very different dynamic. It's shocking. You're not prepared; nobody can prepare you.
It's not a message film. it's not a social issue film, but I do hope that it brings a certain awareness that it's a period in the life of a family that deserves a little attention.
Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.