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Family Affair: '51 Birch Street' Uncovers the Inner Lives of Parents

By Tom White

Until we become parents, our own parents are those mythical, mystical authority figures whom we have only known as authority figures. Your parents were the grown-ups who taught you table manners, scolded you, dressed you, supported you, grounded you and rewarded you. And they are always your parents--no matter how old you are or mature you think you are, you can't help melting into a sheepish puddle trying to please them. No matter how hard you try, you just can't kill your inner Beaver Cleaver.
Sooner or later, you want to know about your parents--I mean, really know. You rummage through the attic for clues in old letters, you look through high school yearbooks, you listen in on cocktail parties. Who are these people, really? How am I like them?
Not long after the sudden passing of filmmaker Doug Block's mother, Mina, his father, Mike, married his former secretary, Kitty, and put the Long Island family home of 54 years on the market, with the intent of moving to Florida. Such a series of convulsive events set Block in motion to explore the question, "Do you really want to know your parents?" in his latest film, 51 Birch Street, which kicks off its theatrical run Wednesday, October 18, in New York through Truly Indie. We caught up with Block by phone to talk about the autobiographical/personal documentary genre, parents and parenting, and life in suburbia.

IDA: The film opens with footage of your parents, when your mother was still alive. Were you actually making a film about your parents before your mother passed, or was this for posterity?

Doug Block: No, I never intended to make a film about my parents. It felt like I shot a huge amount with my parents, here and there over the years,but I did two fairly large, in-depth interviews with them--one where I individually interviewed them about their family history, just for my sisters and I to have. So I shot those ten years ago and never looked at them again. And I thought I might do a wedding film--a film based on some of the weddings that I've shot over the years, and interview them about their wedding day and kind of got off on the subject of marriage in general--this was seven years ago.

IDA: I noticed in the closing credits that one of the many people you thank is Ross McElwee. With respect to the autobiographical or personal documentary genre, what is it about McElwee's work in particular that has inspired you as a filmmaker--and particularly with regard to this film?

DB: Well, I didn't thank him for his overall influence; he specifically helped me in certain ways. But Ross is fully to blame for my being a documentary filmmaker, thanks to Sherman's March. It was the first documentary that I ever saw that was as entertaining as any fiction film. I hadn't even considered doing documentaries; I always thought I'd be a fiction filmmaker. And it turned my head around. His style is also sort of a signpost for where I can't go, because Ross has already been there. It almost requires that you find a different style, even though our sensibilities are very similar. But I consider him to be more of an essay filmmaker, and my work--and certainly 51 Birch Street is meant to be very much a narrative, and I want the audience to think they're watching a fiction film.

IDA: Have you always included yourself in your work?

DB: I think part of that is that I was a professional cameraman and cinematographer for many years. I shot so many interviews before I started making my own films that I just kind of gravitated to wanting to hear my voice asking the questions and having a certain interaction with the subject. When I did my first film, The Heck with Hollywood (1992), I'm not in it, but you still hear my voice, asking questions, and there are two different references to Doug Block in it. Home Page (1999) was the transition to being on camera and being part of the movie more, bringing my family into it. And I have to say I went full blast into 51 Birch Street. That's a personal film.

IDA: I wanted to talk about the personal/autobiographical doc genre and the take on it vis vis the gatekeepers, or commissioning editors, as it were. There was somewhat of a resistance in the 1990s towards the genre, even from the likes of HBO's Sheila Nevins. Now, a decade or so later, HBO is behind the film.

DB: I sent HBO a nine-minute sample, largely shot during that two-week period when I first went up to the house and my father and Kitty moved. In it I discovered my mother's diaries, and I flipped through them and I wondered whether I had the right to look at them. And I was actually leaning against incorporating them into the film, thinking, What kind of son does that to his mother--reads these diaries and fields them publicly? I thought it was a story about a father and son coming to terms with each other before it's too late, before he moves away.
Sheila thought it was my mother's story, and then as I'm leaving she said, "You realize, of course, that the heart of your film is your mother's diaries."...She did it in a brilliant way--there was no imperative; she sort of set the challenge out there. And if you're smart, you totally trust Sheila's gut and how she senses things about what the story is. So the fact that it's very equally balanced now between both my parents is totally due to Sheila, and it's all the better for it.
And then with the first rough cut pass, she brought this up, but we had one major note--would your mother have wanted the diaries to be known in this public way? So at the time we didn't have my mother's friend in the film, Natasha. So I thought about this: How do I solve this one? Do I go to a clairvoyant? What do I do? Then I realized that Natasha was in the scene when the diaries are discovered. The next day I drove up to Cape Cod where she was living, did the interview and drove back all in the same day. I almost forgot to ask her the question! I think that's a key moment in the film--her answer to that question is the emotional high point, except maybe with my father at the end. But this is my mother's story.

IDA: A scene that resonated most for me was after your mother passes, and the next time we see her is on a monitor, with you watching her, and she talks about how, when you were a child, she wasn't happy and the marriage wasn't working.

DB : The funny thing is, that scene is obviously a re-creation, but that is exactly how it happened. Here I had this footage of my mother from ten years ago, so I started thinking, I might want to do this as a film, it was critical. So I went back and checked it, and it almost cued up to that moment, within five minutes I was at that point, when she says exactly what she says in the film. And again I thought, "Where was I when I was interviewing her? How come it didn't sink in, what she was saying?"

IDA: Getting back to the personal/autobiographical doc genre, is there still a resistance to it? Is there a stigma?

DB: Well it's pervasive throughout the industry. Our sales rep is Jan Rofekamp. It's ironic because Jan famously put out a kind of rant about five years ago saying that he would never take on another personal documentary, warning all US documentary filmmakers to stop navel-gazing. It's fascinating to me because when you think about it, no other art form has that kind of stigma coming from a personal place. Anybody can write a book and call it a memoir. If your life is sort of interesting enough... But there's certainly no stigma about it. Best sellers are done by people totally unknown. In theater almost all the classic plays are autobiographical in some way--Tennessse Williams, they're celebrated for it. But somehow the act of turning the camera lens around on yourself is considered navel-gazing. "Who cares about you? Who are you to tell us about your life? Who are you?" I had that attitude in my mind throughout the editing. I have to say that the first ten minutes were the toughest because I put this pressure on myself to deal with audience expectations and that image of the audience sitting there with they're arms folded and saying, "Who are you to tell me about your life? Are you that interesting, really?"

IDA: The same thing might be said about diaries--and it was put forth in the film that perhaps your mother wanted these to be discovered, and this was her subterranean desire to be a famous writer. And diaries, just as with personal documentaries, are a form for self-expression, and the best ones really resonate with a broad audience.

DB: I was very aware of trying not to make a film all about me--and use my parents as an excuse to do something all about me and all about my feelings. You find ways to convey feelings if you try to be witty about it or find a way that's cinematic. Personal films, to's like winning a high-diving competition. They should be judged with a greater degree of difficulty. It's harder just to pull off because you are dealing with certain audience expectations or judgment that I think needs to be disarmed. I wanted them to be in my position. I wanted them to go for the ride with me, project themselves and their own family on my and my family's story.

IDA: Another genre--and it's not just a genre, it's a mythical landscape--that you've tapped into is suburbia, and the artists who have explored that from post-World War II to present: John Cheever, John Updike, Richard Yates, The Stepford Wives, American Beauty, etc. I wonder if, given that suburbia looms so large in American art, that was on your mind, to tap into that landscape?

DB: I give a lot of credit to our editor, Amy Seplin, and Lori Cheatle, my producing partner. They really pushed to make it bigger than my family, to give it a bigger context. And it's bigger than suburbia, even. I'm finding that it's been embraced by cultures so different than ours. I guess people come to it in different ways; some relate to just the father-son story, or coping with the parent's death, then the loss of the house and what that must be like. Younger people see it as a thing about marriage, fidelity, the meaning of love.
First and foremost, you work with what you have. I'm not a big believer in making big broad statements, so when I say we've broadened it out to give it a bigger context of suburbia, in some places it's just presenting a couple of more shots and taking a slightly different approach from an interview--my mother's friend Natahsa talking about what it was like when women made the houses and prepared the dinners until they realized that that was what it was all about, and that's when houses got dirty. Then we found the archival footage to go with it; it wound up mixing really well with the footage my father had taken and the old photos. It was very organic. It can be a real trap to say, Let's make a universal film. What makes something universal is the specificity of the story. So I want to focus on making the immediate story work, and finding a way to expand the themes and provide a bigger context for it, as opposed to trying to deal with the context first through the theme first.

IDA: With shooting your own family, there's an existing dynamic in interacting with your siblings and parents without the camera, but how did that change with the camera?

DB: I think what I take from shooting weddings is the trust that although everyday people think of themselves as boring, I realize that in the right context--in this case, a wedding day--ordinary lives are fascinating. I think I got the trust with my own family that the footage would be really compelling. You wonder in one way, it's people living their lives, but you think of it in another way... that it shapes together as part of a story, it will be really compelling.

IDA: Rather than Doug the son, Doug the brother and Doug the husband, this is Doug the brother, husband and son with a camera, and how that changes in the interactions. Does the camera become an enabler?

DB: It does with my father, I think. Particularly with the interviews. It completely enabled me to ask questions of him that I would never had had the courage to ask otherwise. My father was more comfortable with the formality of an interview than he would have been without the camera. I understood that, and we both were comfortable in that role. I could hide behind my professionalism that required me to come in and ask a provocative question.

IDA : He's been on the festival circuit with you and he's seen it both in private with you and with an audience. What has been his reaction in both contexts?

DB: I've been really surprised how many times he's seen it. It's one thing to do the Q&A to help the film out, and he's done it happily wherever we've been playing. But I keep telling them, Dad, you guys don't have to watch the film. I think they've watched it ten times by now. So I think he's getting something from it, and he's only recently begin to articulate that it's brought back--I want to say certain memories.

 There was a painful aspect to it that sort of emerged. I felt like I absolutely had to have their OK first and early. I didn't really think they would have a huge problem with it and I never thought they would want to just change it. My father was so honest in his responses to me when I was filming that I felt like if I was just as honest in the telling of the story he would respect it and be OK with it. But I was very concerned that there might be something that he thought was either unfair or inaccurate, and he immediately said no.

IDA: As you've gone through this process, how has it resonated for you in your triple role as son, husband and father?

DB: It comes in little unexpected bursts when I'm seeing the film. I've seen it many times with audiences--and then there'd be a moments that I'd be completely caught off guard by something my mother says. I hadn't really taken in yet. It's such a consuming process, making a film, directing a film while you're helping produce it, and while you're on the festival circuit you're selling the film, and every now and then something hits me from the film that puts me back in with my parents, or I get some revelation out of it.
I got that the film was my coming to terms with both parents as an adult. At the beginning of the film, I'm setting up a relationship with parents. We form our relationship with our parents when we're young--and pretty much for the rest of our lives we're still relating as that eight-year old.
The film is about suddenly realizing that if I'm ever going to be an adult with him and have that sort of adult relationship and talk about things that actually go a little bit deeper than surface stuff, i had two weeks because he was going to be gone and all the stuff from our history together was going to be gone. The house was in our family for 54 years and the only place I ever knew as home was going to be gone. So it really gave it some urgency.
And then I realized it's also that way with my mother. I never thought of her in any way but my mother. I never thought of what her own thoughts and needs and desires were. It totally forced me to relate to her in a different way.
One of the great bi-products of the film is that it's brought the whole extended family closer together, and I think it's brought our families much closer--particularly now that we're getting it out into the world.
We have heard the most amazing stories after screenings. It's so interesting that everyone is dealing with their parents--everywhere! That's why I'm so proud I've sold the film to both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera. Can there be a bigger complement as a filmmaker?


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.