Sheffield Doc/Fest film review: Film About a Father Who
by Laurence Boyce
On 14, Oct 2020
Sheffield Doc/Fest is going digital this autumn, with a string of weekend collections playing in cinemas and streaming online.
The fractious relationship between a parent and their children has long been a rich seam for documentary cinema to explore, especially when filmmakers are using the medium to explore their own relationships. Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003) infamously told the story of the director, his complex relationship with his mother and both of their struggles with mental health through 20 years of video footage. Stories We Tell (2012) saw actress and director Sarah Polley discover that her father wasn’t who she thought she was. Tell Them Who You Are (2004) had Mark Wexler follow his father, the renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler, as the two dealt with a professional rivalry that spoke of more profound problems in their relationship. Each of these films eschewed a neutral tone for a more emotional and personal approach to the material while also utilising much use of archive footage, not only to signify the passing of time but also to illustrate the impermanence of memory.
Lynne Sachs’ Film About a Father Who follows many of these tropes as she gathers years of documentary footage – at one point she states that she’s been making the film for 26 years – to try and gain a better understanding of her father, Ira Sachs Sr. Outwardly, Sachs Sr is an open book, a Utah businessman known for gregariousness and an eye for the ladies. But inwardly, he’s closed off, showing little emotion and keeping a myriad of secrets from those who are supposed to be nearest and dearest to him.
Footage that emanates from the past few decades – alongside more formal contemporary footage and a sparely used voiceover from the director – paints a picture of a family typified by dysfunction.
As the large number of siblings – from different mothers, some of whom were kept secret from the others for decades – recount various stories of connection and abandonment, Ira sits as a kind of unknowable monolith as – in the modern day – he conveniently forgets about crucial questions about his past. His impassiveness does sometimes become a barrier as – even when his former paramours try to explain it – it becomes difficult to understand why so many women seemed to the be under his thrall.
While there is plenty of pain and recrimination to be had throughout the film, Film About a Father Who is not an exercise in condemning Sachs Sr. Indeed, it’s a heartfelt attempt to find out more about a man who doesn’t give to emotion easily. He’s not cold or heartless – just neutral and passive, his 1960s hippie demeanour going partway to explaining his seemingly carefree attitude to relationships and his children. He’s not a monster or a deliberately evil person – there are no massive and dark skeletons in the closet to be found, although there are plenty of secrets.
But as the film reminds us, he still leaves plenty of emotional wreckage in his wake. A meeting with one of his former lovers, who came all the way to the Philippines to be with him, reveals just how damaged she was when it all went south. One of his younger daughters – whose existence was kept from the rest of the family for decades – recounts how angry she was when, even though he would visit, she would be living in near poverty while he wanted for nearly nothing.
Footage from across numerous timelines is used indiscriminately throughout, with grainy VHS footage placed next to modern day interviews. The lack of clarity on timelines and what is happening is sometimes confusing, but one suspects that is the point as it echoes the confusion and chaos at the centre of the family dynamic. Film About a Father Who is a gently affecting piece of work – with moments of dry humour studded amongst the emotion – told with a subtle passion and grace.
Film About a Father Who is available to rent for £4 on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects, or as part of a £12 pass for the Into the World collection, until 11.59pm 15th October 2020.