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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Chico Colvard--'Family Affair'

By IDA Editorial Staff


Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks TM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Chico Colvard, director/producer/writer, of Family Affair.

Synopsis: "The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word ‘unspeakable.'"

--Judith Herman, M.D.

Like a scene torn from The Color Purple or Capturing The Friedmans, this deeply personal and uncompromising documentary examines the complex levels of pedophilia and how it can manipulate and control an entire family for life. Family Affair is also a story about resilience, survival and understanding a child's capacity to accommodate a parent's past crimes in order to satisfy a basic longing for family.






IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Chico Colvard: Although my background and training is in law, I've always had a fascination with moving images. As a kid growing up in Germany, I used to sneak out of my room late at night and watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery or The Honeymooners, while my mother would translate the dubbed German versions into English. From very early on I've considered filmmaking one of the great communicators and containers of society--a powerful tool that can challenge clichés and public policy and configure more complicated ways to view the world around us. 

IDA: What inspired you to make Family Affair?

CC: When I first started this project in late 2001, I didn't know that I was making a "documentary." It felt more like I was lawyering with a camera, gathering evidence to present later at trial. I thought that if I could show my sisters how every time we got together, the cordial conversations and light banter would inevitably digress into one about our painful past, that they would then redirect their rage at my father for the crimes he committed against them, and not at each other. I thought I could use the footage to both indict my father and help repair my sisters.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

CC: When I first started interviewing my father, I knew that I had to ask why he had molested my sisters. But I also knew that my father possessed the power to derail the project by simply saying, "I don't wish to participate." He could opt out, not sign a release form and ask that the cameras stop rolling. So for years I'd show up with my camera and simply gather as much background material on my father as possible--his childhood, mother, military days, marriages and so on. I kept waiting for him to bring up the issue, but that never happened. 
Finally, I got a call from my sister saying that our father was in the hospital and he might not make it. I went to visit him with camera in hand, got permission from the hospital to film and realized that this may be my last chance to ask, "Why?" After five years of avoiding the question, I asked and was immediately liberated from the hold he had over me. I was 39 years old at the time, but it was the first time I truly felt like a man. I had always imagined this scene as being contentious, either in his response or my reaction to his response. The scene is crucial to the narrative arc of the film, but not in how I initially envisioned it playing out. In the hospital scene, you hear me ask the question and him start to explain as I slowly lower the volume on him. Some people during rough-cut screenings said to me, "I want to hear everything he had to say about why he did what he did." But for me the scene is more powerful not hearing him attempt to justify what he did--"...drugs... black man was under so much pressure back then...." I wanted the scene to unfold as I experienced it standing there in that hospital room; realizing that asking the question was more important than anything he had to say.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

CC: I never set out to make a film. When my sisters invited me to spend Thanksgiving 2001 with them in Kentucky, I decided to bring along a small camcorder. It was only after I arrived that I learned my father would also be there. This would be the first time I'd seen my father in 15 years. I'd always imagined that after all this time, I'd confront him for what he did to my sisters. But when he walked through the door, I watched my sisters, their kids and neighbors warmly greet this man, laugh at his pithy remarks and cater to his every need. It was absurd. Disturbing. And rather than confront him as I had always imagined, I was instead reduced to a terrified child, hiding behind the camcorder as my father's large torso filled the frame. 
When I returned to Boston, I felt like a coward, who failed to condemn my father and rally my sisters and neighbors behind this cause. But eventually, I came to understand that this is the story--the things my sisters, neighbors and I weren't talking about or confronting. From here I moved from wanting to indict my father and repair my sisters, to questioning why everyone was accommodating this man, who did these terrible things to my sisters. The way I'd always seen child molestation presented in the media was that you'd have the victim/survivor and the offender. Once the abuse was brought to light, the two would go their separate ways: the offender, banished to the margins of society, and the victim/survivor, set on a path of recovery or revenge. But never would the two voluntarily come back together and form a seemingly "normal" father-daughter relationship. I had to ask myself, "Why?"

IDA:  As you've screened Family Affair-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

CC: Inevitably, I encounter folks on the festival circuit who reduce this project to an "incest" film. While that assessment may be unavoidable, I believe that Family Affair is a story about making accommodations for parents, who have betrayed us in order to satisfy an eternal longing for family. What's been most unexpected is the overwhelming number of people who come up to me after a screening or later write to say that although they weren't molested as a child, they completely identify with this story and then begin to open up. While I don't hold myself out to the world as an expert in this area of trauma and recovery, nor am I always prepared to respond, I am humbled by the fact that this film is giving people permission to talk about their own family crisis.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

CC: Best Boy...Grey Gardens...A Boy's Life...Southern name a few.

Family Affair will be screening July 30 through August 5 at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles and August 13 through 19 at the IFC Center in New York City.


To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Family Affair in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for Family Affair in New York, click here.