‘I am the son of a mother with a mask’
Interviewed after being awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, A Family Affair director Tom Fassaert identifies this declaration from his father to be the very ‘essence’ of his documentary. The ‘masked’ woman in question is former model and femme fatale, 95-year-old Marianne Hertz, who has emigrated to South Africa from Holland, leaving behind her a legacy of estrangement and dysfunction. Invited by his grandmother to join her in her whitewashed bungalow, Tom embarks on a quest to discover more about this enigmatic figure whose sudden reappearance stirs up family secrets and old resentments.
The ‘mask’ metaphor, along with carefully posed family photos and videos, and lingering shots of Marianne applying makeup in her dressing gown and rollers, flags up a tension between appearances and ‘truth’, and of the faces we present to the world and those we hide even from ourselves. Tom tells his grandmother ‘I'm making this film because so many things were always kept secret… I want to find out what's going on,’ to which she replies, with a dismissive wave of her hand, ‘That's your problem! Not mine!’, alerting us from the outset that this quest for answers is unlikely to be straightforward.
What emerges is an intensely personal documentary that resembles a patchworked family album salvaged from memories and images from across the generations, but which also plays an active role in the ongoing creation of the family’s story, with Marianne journeying back to Holland for a family reunion. Tom’s interviews track how his father, Rob, and uncle, Rene, were placed in a home in early childhood, even if we never quite reach an answer as to why, as well as documenting the aftermath of sorrow, divorce and mental illness. And, although conversations add narrative to the black and white photos of a distant past – of Marianne’s own unhappy childhood in Germany – we gradually begin to realise that these tangled genealogies are not so easily unravelled.
What first strikes you on meeting Tom and his father is the ease and openness of their rapport, the intimacy displayed on screen just as apparent in person and in sharp contrast to the silences and ellipses that punctuate much of the family history. When asked how the film and promotional tour have impacted their relationship, they both recognise that their many conversations, both in and around the film, have allowed for this natural intimacy to deepen, with Rob likening it to a return to the closeness shared when the family was still intact and living under one roof.
While the interviews on screen appear spontaneous and open, Tom is careful to point out that the process was more challenging than it appeared, emphasising several times the ‘struggle’ experienced in his five years filming: ‘certain subjects, or certain emotions, you're not conscious of yourself, they're in there, but you live with them, they're part of you… and it takes an outsider, or, well, I'm like a half-outsider, to point it out. And that's what made it enriching for me, but also very difficult, especially concerning my father… because I felt I needed to touch on things or to keep on digging until I found what I was looking for.’
This persistence creates what Tom sees as the ‘ethical dilemma’ of creating such an intimate work, in contrast with his previous non-autobiographical film, An Angel in Doel (2011), in which ‘everything was clear’. The challenge, as Tom puts it, lies not only in terms of ‘loyalty’ to those represented, never taking sides, but also in constantly examining his own position about what gives him the ‘right’ to keep on asking questions, even in the face of emotional vulnerability: ‘in the end you have to trust your own sensitivity, that in the end the goal is to make a film in which all these people are represented in their most honest and truthful way.’
When asked whether having a camera made it easier to have such intense conversations with his family, Tom goes even further, admitting these exchanges would have been impossible without one: ‘I think I wasn't brave enough, well, not to ask certain questions but to go on asking… the camera was an instrument that let me do something I would have felt too awkward doing without it’. He adds that he is still filming his uncle, aware that he hasn’t yet told Rene’s ‘full story’ - the camera allowing him to build a connection with someone who previously felt like a ‘stranger’.
Tom’s ability to make people feel truly ‘seen’ is most striking in his relationship with his grandmother. Questioned about Marianne, both Tom and Rob identify the ‘tragedy’ of how, although she hated the way her father only loved her for how she looked, she ended up a model, spending her life trying to maintain the very beauty that she resented. There was ‘no alternative’, as Rob describes it, comparing her to a celebrity who both loathes fame and relies on it for a sense of self. What initially appears in the film as narcissism is therefore reframed as self-reliance, the survival strategy of a woman living in an era when her options were limited.
In a particularly emotional interview in the cruise ship cabin, en route to Holland, Marianne turns to Tom, referring to him as the only person who really sees something in her, who doesn’t judge her, before breaking down into tears and hiding her face from the camera. Asked about this scene, Tom notes that ‘it felt like THE moment of truth’ and although it is difficult to watch, there is a feeling that we are privileged in witnessing something unmediated and so resolutely human.
It is in this context that the revelation of Marianne’s desire for Tom becomes easier to understand. While aware that certain audiences might regard it as ‘perverse’, Tom comments that the feeling of taboo is much greater when talking about it, whereas when people actually see the film, it emerges as part of Marianne’s character and way of relating with men, shaped by her father, and, as Rob points out, by the fact that she never really saw herself as a mother or grandmother.
Crucially, when asked whether he had considered leaving this out of the film, Tom emphasises how he didn’t feel any judgment towards Marianne: ‘at a certain moment I had two choices… either leave her, in a way abandon her, or accept it… accept her feelings. And I chose to accept.’
Rather than ‘truth’, then, we move towards an understanding based on acceptance and a shared sense of sorrow, during a sequence of Super 8 footage of autumn leaves and tangled roots, with a quotation from Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, also about dysfunctional family relationships. Rene’s thoughts about how the ‘ideal moment’ of connection between mother and child is so fleeting overlap with similar feelings expressed by the others. According to Tom, ‘it's the emotional climax of the film – we're very close together, all our stories seem to be parallel even though in real life we feel we are hugely apart from each other.’
Referring to this festival’s focus on mental health, Rob, a former psychologist, talks of self-exposure as a necessary part of the therapeutic encounter and how his own troubled past was precisely what led to him training. He also observes how his son’s film and approach are ‘psychological in every way’, particularly in his equal focus on each person – ‘that was amazing for me, he's really interested in people’ and in asking the ‘right kind of questions’ that allow people to open up.
The value of honesty to mental wellbeing is also emphasised by Tom, particularly in a context where social media leads us to display ourselves ‘in a perfect way’ that none of us can really live up to: ‘I think we long for something real, for something that touches on emotional things that we all feel, that allow us not to have to pretend.’ Alongside the personal value of the film, it is through the positive reaction of audiences to this emotional honesty that Tom says he has come to appreciate the film’s importance, ‘that this is something really universal, it's not only about us…’, noting how many people have approached him with their own family stories.
There is no longed-for ‘happy ending’, then, but rather ambiguity and complexity. Marianne is both vulnerable and cunning, disarmingly honest and ‘a born manipulator’, falling out with Tom right at the very end: ‘It happened and it needed to be there, just to show you that things aren’t that easily solved… we don't live in a Hollywood movie.’
‘The truth is subjective... You'll never find what you're looking for. Impossible. Even if you try,’ Marianne declares in the film. And while she may be right, A Family Affair suggests admitting this does not invalidate the search for understanding: ‘not judging, not creating this oversimplified idea about right and wrong, black and white… that was my main ambition,’ as Tom puts it. We are all caught in this ongoing construction of ourselves and others; to quote Bergman: ‘We make each other alive; it doesn’t make a difference if it hurts.’ And while there is an undeniable tenderness at the heart of this documentary, this sense of how we exist in relation, and how these relations are inevitably messy, full of possibility and disappointment alike, is perhaps the closest we can get to something true.
by Clare Blackburne
A Family Affair won Best Documentary Feature and the Grand Jury Prize in the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival's International Film Competition. It is now available to watch on Netflix in the UK.