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“I wanted to remove the mask”

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Tom Fassaert • Director


- Dutch director Tom Fassaert talks about his engaging and highly personal documentary A Family Affair, Best Film in the International Competition at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna

Tom Fassaert • Director

The winner of the Special Jury Prize at the IFDA in Amsterdam and the Millenium Documentary FF in Brussels, as well as the Dutch Directors Guild Award 2016 for Best Documentary, A Family Affair [+see also:
film review
interview: Tom Fassaert
film profile
 by Dutch director Tom Fassaert is travelling the world and stopped off for its Italian premiere at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna (10-20 June 2016). In the film, Fassaert explores his family secrets, which centre in particular around the controversial and charismatic figure of his grandmother, Marianne Hertz, who was a well-known model in the 50s as well as a femme fatale and mother who abandoned her two children to move to South Africa. An engaging and highly personal film which, almost like a thriller, reveals one truth after another.

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Cineuropa: When did you start to realise that your family was hiding a secret?
Tom Fassaert: When I was little I felt like there was something we couldn’t talk about, I understood as much from the way my father behaved. As I got older, everything started to point more and more to his mother. I was raised as if my grandmother didn’t exist. I knew she was a model and that she lived on the other side of the world, but I didn’t know why, she was more a figure of fantasy than a real person.

When I became a filmmaker it didn’t occur to me to make a film about my family, I was more interested in ‘cinéma vérité’. But when my father suddenly announced that he was going to stop being a psychologist and start a new life for himself, alarm bells started ringing. The first thing he honed in on was his mother; he wanted to write a book. I understood that something from the past was weighing heavily on the present, and that she was still alive... I wanted to remove the mask. I didn’t know how to make this film, but I threw myself into it completely, for five years. 

You were lucky enough to have access to a huge number of family films shot by your father. Would this film have been possible without all that material?
Filming ourselves and our family seems to be something of a genetic ‘illness. These days it’s normal, people are obsessed with selfies, but for four generations, my family felt the need to film itself (my father even filmed my grandmother, in 16mm), perhaps to bridge a great lack of trust, a way of reclaiming our right to life, on film. We have this constant need for self-affirmation, almost to the point of obsession. With such an excess of material, I had to make this film. Without it, it would have been a very different story, those films enabled me to bring the past to life.

Faced with the prospect of discovering such delicate and personal truths, were you ever tempted to pack the whole thing in?
This film presented me with a moral and professional dilemma: how to step back from my material, from the conflict between my father and his mother. There have been several occasions on which I’ve hated this film. It was draining me emotionally, mentally and physically, everyday I wrote in a diary, I was exhausted. There were times – like when I talk about the orphanage or my uncle Rene’s problems – that I would much rather have put a stop to everything and leave all these stones unturned. Then I came to the conclusion that as a person, I wanted to give up and walk away, but that as a filmmaker, this was a real, decisive moment, and I had to be honest. I also didn’t want to appear in the film, but at one point my grandmother faces me and says: “Tom, you stand there and ask your subjects to open up and tell the truth… but behind the camera, what are you doing?”. That’s when my position in the film changed, she pulled me into it. 

From a highly personal film to a new completely different project. The title of your next documentary is Lampedusa, is it not?
Truth be told, not anymore. Two years ago I did some research in Lampedusa, I wanted to tell the story of a community, not of immigrants. I spoke to lots of people, with the mayor, the priest, etc. The priest told me that there was another Italian director working on a film on Lampedusa, but he wasn’t sure whether to go ahead with it. When he told me the other director was Gianfranco Rosi, I couldn’t believe it, I thought to myself “him, really? In that case, if he goes ahead with it, I’ll pull out”. As a director, I feel very close to Gianfranco, even though I don’t know him personally. I knew that he would make a similar film to the one I would have made. And indeed, his is a great film about community.

Do you have anything in mind yet for your next film?
A lot of the people who have seen A Family Affair have told me that their favourite character is my uncle Rene. In actual fact, during filming, I imagined making a film about him because he has a strong personality and an original approach to life. A separate story in its own right: I started thinking about it two years ago. A Family Affair changed who I am as a person and as a filmmaker, I don’t only think about cinéma vérité anymore. I’m not saying I’ll only make personal films from now on, but my relationship with Rene is delicate and profound, and his story is moving in a very interesting direction. That will be the subject of my next film.

(Translated from Italian)

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