'A Family Affair': IDFA Review

A Family Affair still - H 2015
Courtesy of IDFA
A fascinating family history as enigmatic as it is revealing.

Dutch director Tom Fassaert examines his own family and family history in his sophomore feature, which opened IDFA.

Dutch documentary director Tom Fassaert’s German-born, South Africa-based grandmother is the focus of his fascinating second feature, A Family Affair — though as the title suggests, her children and grandchildren also play a role. A decidedly more personal project for Fassaert, whose first feature, An Angel in Doel, looked at a dying village in northern Belgium, this autobiographical film will no doubt be a conversation starter at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which selected it for the opening slot. Though some might be put off by what could be considered voyeuristic elements, such controversy could help draw attention to the film as it kicks off its festival career. It will be released in the Netherlands Nov. 19.

The film opens not on Fassaert’s grandmother but on the director’s father, who explains he is the son “of a mother with a mask” and “her unmasking” would also be his. It’s an intriguing setup and one that immediately suggests the film is much more about the way in which people perceive one another than about the way people really are. If anything, Fassaert seems to suggest it might be impossible to really know anyone, even if you’re related to them.

As partially explained in voice-over, in his childhood Fassaert thought his father (and also an uncle who apparently has a form of autism) were orphans before finding out that his grandmother was still alive but had moved to South Africa. “We were a happy family until grandma came along” is a statement that early on suggests the relationship between grandma and her offspring isn't an easy one.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his father’s problems with this enigmatic woman, Fassaert gets an invitation to visit her. There’s an initial sense that he’s not necessarily thinking about making a documentary but that he might be using the camera as a shield between him and the vivacious but also — or so he’s been told — dangerously manipulative matriarch. As a filmmaker, he’s clearly interested in uncovering stories, and he’s lucky that both his father and a great-grandfather who, as a well-off German, struggled with his Jewishness were interested in documenting their families for posterity. Consequently, Fassaert has a lot of material for the interludes in which he tries to fill in for viewers bits of the family’s backstory.

That said, most of the film stays firmly in the present and not everything is explained. We learn that Marianne, a fashion model and single mother in 1950s Netherlands, placed her children — there were three in total, the third doesn’t appear in a speaking role here — in an orphanage for several years and just as inexplicably took them back. Similarly, Marianne gave Fassaert’s father a job in South Africa when the director was a young boy, but after the family moved there, she retracted the offer and they suddenly had to survive on their own. (Their African adventure would end with the divorce of the filmmakers’ parents.) Even more mysterious is the autobiography, called My Double Life, that Marianne asked a ghostwriter to help her with, though no publisher accepted the manuscript. Fassaert suggests he has read it, though he never says exactly what is in the book or what Marianne's double life might have been.

Thanks to the power of Claudio Hughes’ editing, audiences will get a good sense of the personalities in the doc. Marianne still can’t do without makeup or mirrors and loves being the center of attention and the star of a film, even as she tells her grandson: “You’ll never find out anything.” 

Minor problems include the lack of a strong sense of how Fassaert feels about some of the revelations in the film. The ending, which includes a family reunion and a fight about the director’s girlfriend of nine years, is a bit of an unfocused mess, though it also features one of the film’s most arresting images, also used at the start: Marianne seated in her suburban home in South Africa as Fassaert holds the phone close to her ear, while we hear his father try and start a conversation with her; it’s not clear whether she doesn’t want to talk to her son or she can’t hear him, but either way she sits immobile and says nothing. It’s a suitable image for a family in which communication has always been a problem. However, through Fassaert's intervention the protagonists might have come at least a step closer to connecting.

Production companies: Conijn Film, Danish Documentary, Clin d’oeil Films, Danish Documentary Production, NCRV, DR, Estonian Public Broadcasting

Writer-Director: Tom Fassaert

Narrator: Tom Fassaert

Producers: Wout Conijn

Director of photography: Tom Fassaert

Editor: Claudio Hughes

No rating, 110 minutes