Back in 2005 Doug Block released a documentary about his parents, “51 Birch Street,” which received raves in Toronto and beyond. His follow-up film, “The Kids Grow Up,” opening this Friday at New York’s Angelika Film Center, exhibits the same deeply personal sort of narrative that fueled his last outing. This time, Block focuses on his own role as a parent, chronicling the last year of his daughter’s life before she heads to college.
While Block’s brand of first-person cinema runs the risk of limiting itself to a niche audience, he continues to successfully avoid that outcome with his documentaries.
“The Kids Grow Up” opens Friday, October 29th at the Angelika Film Center in New York City, and November 12th at the Laemmle Sunset in Los Angeles.
“I want my films to be universal stories,” Block told indieWIRE. “It’s not enough to just show my family, you want to see it in the context of some bigger theme.”
Parenting in general, and fatherhood specifically, emerges as an important underlying concern in his work. Block revealed that he thought there was an important film to be made about the parenting experience, but that he at first didn’t know quite what that story was, or how to frame it. He found the access point through the theme of transition within the family. His last film, “51 Birch Street,” an introspective take on the intricacies of the parent-child relationship, works as a kind of companion piece to his newest effort.
“Both films are structured around empty homes,” Block shared. “With the last film it was my father moving out of the family home to Florida and I knew this film was heading for a very emotional moment, a time bomb of a moment, with Lucy leaving to college.”
Like “51 Birch Street,” the film imposes a deceptively amateur aesthetic that immediately recalls the private, endemic essence of home movies. The film is framed around this private footage, including several different formats and generations of home movies – from the grainy, silent 8mm clips of the director’s childhood to the roaming video/digital texture that documents Lucy’s upbringing.
“These 17 years of footage I had of Lucy, all of this footage that I didn’t know how to incorporate, became an extension of my memory,” Block said. “All of a sudden it was very clear – I could go back anywhere in time to any moment in her life. While editing the film we tried to find as many organic reasons of going back to that footage, to always be motivated by any moment that would recall a memory.”
Block intercuts the elliptical flashbacks with contemporary footage of Lucy’s life, roaming candidly through her final moments at home with an anxious, bittersweet tenderness. His last two features are infused with a powerful, at times emotionally profound, nostalgia intrinsic to these cinematic time-capsules. The home movie aesthetic suggests a sort of perpetual past-tense form of narration, coding even the contemporary footage of the diegetic “present” under an aura of reminiscence.
“The editing permitted us to go in and out of time seamlessly, the way memories allow us to,” Block explained. Block’s films recall the work of Jean Rouch and cinéma vérité, an assertion that Block compounds when speaking about his cinematic influences.
“‘Citizen Kane’ was the film that made me want to make movies, but ‘Sherman’s March’ made me want to make documentaries,” he said.
It’s a sense that comes out strongly in “The Kids Grow Up,” which is borderline exhibitionist in its frankness. Block shows his wife struggling through a strong bout of clinical depression, films his daughter as she pleads him to stop invading her privacy, and narrates his own doubts about continuing the project from behind the camera. Overall, however, there is a noted absence of explicit voyeurism in the film thanks in large part to the trust and access granted to the filmmaker by his family.
“These films have altered my family relationships for the better,” Block said. “You dare to ask questions with the camera that you normally wouldn’t. If you approach it the right way, the camera represents this undivided attention that you’re paying them…my wife says we often have our best conversations on-camera because she feels I never listen to her more closely than when I’m filming her.
“I never imagined I would get more acclaim as a filmmaker for making films about my family than anything else. These kind of films are fraught with danger. My wife and Lucy knew to trust me in this film after seeing ‘51 Birch Street’ and after seeing how all of our relationships are better as a result of that film. If anything makes them really uncomfortable it gets cut. They respect that I will tell their stories honestly and truthfully.”