At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival two very different documentaries celebrated their world premieres, each with a similar premise — a filmmaker son turns the lens to his father in a quest to understand and honor their complicated relationship. Thomas Allen Harris‘ “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes” looks at a stepfather who tried to balance being a leading member of the African National Congress with his paternal duties, while Doug Block‘s “51 Birch Street” explores a father’s complicated relationship with his wife, his children, and a woman from his past.
In the case of director Doug Block (“Home Page“, “The Heck with Hollywood“), the idea of making a film about his relationship with his father, and the death of his mother, never crossed his mind. Indeed, most people don’t think their own seemingly ordinary families are worthy of the feature-length treatment, and Block was no exception, until one day things changed drastically, and “51 Birch Street” was born.
“I never intended to make it as a film,” Block told indieWIRE. “My parents were married 53 years, then my mother died pretty unexpectedly, and about three months later I got a call from my father in Florida to announce that he’s living with his secretary from 40 years ago.” If that news wasn’t shocking enough, his father announced that he was selling the family house in Long Island and marrying this mystery woman from the past. For posterity’s sake, Block went to his childhood home with his camera to shoot a few final scenes to add to the family vault, still never intending to make a film.
When Block decided to turn the camera on his normally guarded father to ask about his thoughts on recent events, decades of pent up emotions were suddenly released. “I threw my first question at my father and he didn’t stop talking until I had to change tapes about an hour later,” says Block. “He’s not a man who talks about himself ever…so I just kept coming back. I decided I was going to get to know my father. He wanted the company and it seemed like this was an opportunity to have a breakthrough with him, and get to know who he is.”
It was the second time that Block returned to the family home that he found his mother’s diaries — three boxes full, dating back 35 years. “It’s the central premise of the film,” he says. “If you had the chance to learn everything about your parents’ lives, would you really want to know? I really had to think about that for a long time.” But it’s when he asked his dad whether or not he missed mom that Block finally understood he had a film to make. “He said no. I didn’t see that coming at all, because I thought he still had all these lingering feelings for my mother…It totally stunned me. I thought they had a really good marriage.”
What makes films like “51 Birch Street” so compelling is that the Block family story is our own story, at least partially. Documentaries like these expose the cracks in the stucco that every family has — dad might have been cheating with his secretary, mom might have not been happy with her suburban lot in life, and yet they stayed together until death parted them. “I can’t help thinking when it comes to your parents,” Block says as he narrates the film, “maybe ignorance is bliss.”
In “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela: A Son’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes”, director Thomas Allen Harris (“Vintage – Families of Value“, “E Minha Cara/That’s My Face“) also explores the complex relationship between a father and son, but in this case it’s the death of his stepfather that compels him to make a documentary about this extraordinary man. Benjamin Pule Leinaeng (“Lee”) was an African National Congress foot soldier who dedicated his life to the liberation of his native South Africa. As part of the first wave of freedom fighters, Lee and his twelve compatriots fled their homeland in 1960 to tell the world of the brutality of apartheid and to garner support for the ANC and its noble leaders, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Archival footage, newsreel footage, old photographs, and current day interviews are all fused together to tell this remarkable tale. In fact, Lee’s own super-8 home movie footage is eventually incorporated, bringing a touch of sweet nostalgia to an otherwise intense story. Harris even uses re-enactments to fill in some historical gaps, creating segments that are gorgeously shot on Super 16 in South Africa, and beautifully acted by a mix of local professionals and amateurs. The end result is a deeply personal portrait of a father-son relationship that also details the important historical journey of twelve fearless revolutionaries.
“Even though my other docs were also personal,” Harris told indieWIRE, “this film was more challenging because it dealt with such a complex relationship. Lee was my stepfather and we had such a tumultuous connection, there was a lot I had to grapple with in terms of my responsibility for the problems in our relationship and also Lee’s responsibility and commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle, which came first before any other obligation. I wanted a father and Lee wanted South Africa to be free.”
Whether you’re a father fighting for the freedom of a people and a country, or one simply fighting to hold together a fragile marriage, it seems that the relationship with a son may be one of life’s biggest challenges. “Fathers and sons are both men negotiating the politics of space and the often unexpressed need for nurturance, respect and empathy,” says Harris. “There is so much that remains unspoken between men — particularly between fathers and sons. Then there is the crisis of disappointment when all these unexpressed emotions aren’t addressed.”
Block has similar sentiments. “My father is emblematic of that post-war generation of men who came back and started families, worked themselves to the bone to provide for them, but didn’t really have a lot of contact with them,” he says. “I think with my father it was because he came from a generation of men that were told they needed to be strong and silent, so they didn’t share themselves. It’s sad that it takes a really dramatic event, like the death of a parent, to break through that, but I was lucky. I got a chance to reconnect with my dad before it was too late, and I was able to record the process and share it now as a film.”