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Sundance ‘10 | Chico Colvard Examines His Troubled Past in “Family Affair”

Sundance ‘10 | Chico Colvard Examines His Troubled Past in "Family Affair"

Chico Colvard makes his directorial debut with “Family Affair,” an intensely personal documentary in which he examines his own troubled family history. “At 10 years old, Chico Colvard shot his older sister in the leg. This seemingly random act detonated a chain reaction that exposed unspeakable realities and shattered his family. Thirty years later, Colvard ruptures veils of secrecy and silence again. As he bravely visits his relatives, what unfolds is a personal film that’s as uncompromising, raw, and cathartic as any in the history of the medium.

“Driving the story forward is Colvard’s sensitive probing of a complex dynamic: the way his three sisters survived severe childhood abuse by their father and, as adults, manage to muster loyalty to him. These unforgettable, invincible women paint a picture of their harrowing girlhoods as they resiliently struggle with present-day fallout. The distance time gives them from their trauma yields piercing insights about the legacy of abuse, the nature of forgiveness, and eternal longing for family and love. These truths may be too searing to bear, but they reverberate powerfully within each of us.” [Description courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival]

“Family Affair”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Chico Colvard
Screenwriter: Chico Colvard
Executive Producer: Abigail Disney, Dan Cogan
Producer: Chico Colvard, Liz Garbus
Composer: Miriam Cutler
Editor: Rachel J. Clark
80 minutes

Chico Colvard on becoming a filmmaker and his Sundance project, “Family Affair”…

My name is Chico Colvard. I directed and produced “Family Affair,” which will premiere at Sundance in the 2010 U.S. Documentary Competition section. My background and training is in law, but 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” and “The Honeymooners,” while my mother sat and translated these episodes from German to English.

When I first started this project in 2002, I didn’t know that I was making a “documentary.” I felt instead more like a lawyer interviewing witnesses (on camera), gathering facts and preparing 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 inevitably digressed into one about our painful past. Rather than direct their rage at my father for the criminal acts he committed against them, what I often witnessed were my sisters pointing the finger at each other. I thought I could use the footage to both indict my father and help repair my sisters.

When starting this project, I knew nothing about editing or how to operate a camera outside of the one or two audio/visual courses I took in college. At first, I’d grab anything with a lens and begin filming under less than perfect conditions — what was critical to me then and now, was the story.  In 2002, when my sisters invited me to spend Thanksgiving with them in Kentucky, I decided to bring along a small camcorder. It was only after I arrived that I learned my father would be there. This would be the first time I’d seen my father since severing all ties with him 15 years earlier. I’d always imagined that after all these years, I’d confront him and charge him for what he did to my sisters. But when he walked through the door, I watched my sisters, their children and neighbors warmly greet this man, laugh at his pithy remarks and cater to his every need. It was absurd. Disturbing. And rather than indict him as I had always imagined, I was instead reduced to a terrified child, hiding behind the camcorder… “hey, how are you?” is all I could muster up the courage to say as my father walked toward me and filled the frame.

“Family Affair” director Chico Colvard. Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

When I returned to Boston, I was ashamed at my lack of bravery — I felt like a coward, who failed in my quest to condemn my father and rally my sisters and neighbors behind me. But eventually I came to discover that this is the story — the part that we don’t talk about when it comes to the issue of incest. Why were my sisters and others accommodating this man, who did these terrible things? 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. Why?

When I first started interviewing my father, I knew that I had to ask why he 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, marriage to my mother 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 skirting around the question, I did ask and was immediately free of 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 answer. The scene is crucial, but not in how I initially envisioned it playing out. In the scene, we hear me ask the question and him start to explain as I slowly lower the volume on him. Some people during roughcut screenings have 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 could say.

Colvard on how he expects the film to play at Sundance…

Inevitably, there are some who will, no matter what, reduce this project to an “incest” film. While that assessment may be unavoidable, I believe that “Family Affair” is a story that will resonate with anyone who’s found themselves making accommodations for a parent that was abusive, neglectful or simply unavailable when they were a child. I meet a lot people who say that although they weren’t molested as a child, they did have a parent who was an alcoholic, verbally abusive, self-absorbed, or cheated on their mother or some act of betrayal that only a parent can commit… and that today they find themselves still struggling with that past — mostly because they remain complicit in creating the illusion of a happy and cohesive family.

The films that influenced him…

“A Boy’s Life,” “Best Boy,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “51 Birch Street,” “The Woodsman,” “City of Children,” “The Color Purple.” Each of these films dealt with families in crisis. As sensitive and volatile as the subject matter of each of these films are, the filmmakers were very careful to not solely reduce their characters/subjects to the worst act committed by or against them. And while any of these films could have turned into a investigative reporting or sanitized version of itself, they all managed to bring a certain eloquence and intimacy to their storytelling, which I hope I’ve captured in “Family Affair.”

On his future projects…

I have started research and development on a project that examines the history of “Black Russians” and present day rise in hate crimes against them. The story will focus on four subjects: a neo-nazi Russian, a Black Russian student, a “mixed race” Russian, and an Albanian living in Russian, also considered “Black” in a derogatory manner by white Russians.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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