A Family Affair: A very special grandmother
by Vittoria Scarpa
- Dutch director Tom Fassaert explores the complex story of his family in his new feature-length documentary, which won the Award for Best International Film at Biografilm
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, wrote Tolstoy. And some unhappy families are unhappy in a sensational, almost spectacular way. This is the case for 36-year-old Dutch director Tom Fassaert, whose family story – it has to be said – is like something out of a film. And lo and behold it has been made into a film: A Family Affair [+see also:
interview: Tom Fassaert
film profile], a passionate and highly personal documentary, but one of an appeal as universal as family ties in all their complexity and contradictory nature, a painful yet entertaining story that Italian audiences were given the opportunity to see at the 12th Biografilm Festival in Bologna, where the film won the award for Best International Film.
When he turned 30, Fassaert (who already received acclaim for An Angel in Doel) picked up his video camera and set off in search of the truth about his family: why were they not allowed to talk about his grandmother at home? Why was his father full of so much suffering? What made his uncle Rene so fragile? And so he headed to South Africa, where his 95-year-old grandmother had been living for several years. But Marianne Hertz is anything but the stereotypical grandmother. A famous model in the 1950s, femme fatale and absentee mother, to the point of abandoning her two sons in an orphanage, Marianne chose to up sticks to the other side of the world, to start her life over and insolently think only of herself.
But who really was Marianne Hertz? This is what her grandson Tom tries to find out, forging a special bond of understanding and trust with this charismatic and mysterious woman, which leads to unexpected confessions. Witty, self-assured, seductive, this remarkably surprising grandmother rouses conflicting feelings in the viewer: she captivates yet repulses you, as she’s terribly charming, but it’s also true that her selfishness has left a pile of ruins in its wake. As compelling as a thriller, part of the value of this documentary lies in the wealth of visual material it presents us with: the story of the Fassaert family is reconstructed with the help of the myriad amateur films shot by Tom’s father, who used to dedicate himself to almost compulsively filming every moment of their lives.
Whether the director truly has succeeded in removing the mask worn by his enigmatic grandmother cannot be said for sure. “The truth doesn’t exist. You have to leave the family as it is and start living your life” is the advice that Marianne gives her grandson. And you, as a viewer, agree, nonetheless grateful to have witnessed this family tale worthy of the best Russian literature.
(Translated from Italian)