ARTicle Magazine

The parent trap

Guy Somerset · 04 May 2016

Doc Edge film A Family Affair is a grandson's gripping study of 95-year-old Marianne Chilliers and her mothering's legacy of damage.

A Family Affair

A Family Affair

A Family Affair screens on Friday 13 May and Sunday 15 May at The Roxy, Wellington, and Friday 20 May and Monday 23 May at Q Theatre, Auckland, featuring a Q&A with director Tom Fassaert after all except the 23 May screening. Part of Doc Edge, Wednesday 4 May – Sunday 15 May, Wellington; Wednesday 18 May – Sunday 29 May, Auckland.

A blacker-hearted, more darkly humoured Doc Edge film festival programmer might have scheduled A Family Affair on Mother's Day. Forget Garry Marshall's soft-centred cinematic confection starring Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts. You need to see Dutch director Tom Fassaert's patient unpicking of the tightly woven unspokens running through his family as a result of his grandmother's atrocious parenting and its legacy of emotional and psychological damage.

"The family swept all the painful things under the carpet," says Fassaert at the beginning of A Family Affair. "Everybody keeps up appearances while in reality there's a lot of sorrow."

Fassaert's gripping character study was filmed mostly between 2010 and last year after 95-year-old Marianne Chilliers invited her then 30-year-old grandson to stay at her home in South Africa and he got to delve deeper into her long-term estrangement from her children, Rob, René and Madeleine.

It was an estrangement caused not only by the hurt of Marianne's two-year abandonment of her young sons in a children's home, but also by the parenting that followed and a selfish insensitivity that continued throughout the children's adulthood until her death.

By lifting the carpet, and probing persistently, Fassaert reveals some explanation and mitigation for Marianne's character and behaviour – with the source of the family's blight stretching back at least a generation further, to her father and her own upbringing, where how she looked was deemed a lot more important than how she felt.

Marianne went on to become a fashion model in Paris and London in the 1950s, and the obsession with looks is still evident in the documentary, where she is forever doing her hair and make-up in front of a mirror. ("I think she took about two to three hours in the morning grooming herself," says Fassaert, "and in the afternoon again if we were to go out for lunch there would be another hour. If we were to go to a cinema in the evening, it would be another. I think there were about 39 mirrors in the house – including one in the garage.")

For all we learn of her past, Marianne remains as frustrating as she is fascinating, with her narcissism and casually cast cruelties, not least towards Fassaert's broken uncle René.

She even develops a bonkers crush on Fassaert, whom she starts to regard as her boyfriend rather than grandson, petulantly put out when he points to his partner of nine years. Being his grandmother is too unromantic, she says. "Too real. Too real."

Rejecting a ghost-written autobiography as having failed to capture her properly, Marianne tells Fassaert she is confident his film will do a better job.

Ahead of the documentary's four New Zealand screenings – the first on Friday 13 May rather than Mother's Day – I ask Fassaert if he thinks Marianne would have considered her confidence well-placed had she lived to see the final film.

"I don't know. That's my biggest question, of course, and I would have loved to have showed her the film if she had still been alive. I wasn't waiting for her to die. On the contrary. I will never know how she would have reacted because she's still a mystery to me. But I think in a way she would have loved the attention the film has got and she would have loved the red carpet, the podium, the media attention. I think the film itself would confront her. It would really confront her with everything she disliked. In the film, she says she doesn't like the reality, she likes the romantic fantasy much more, and of course she chose during her whole life to live in that fantasy, far away from the reality of the family. So I think during the screening it would be very painful for her. I don't know if she would see the whole film or walk away.

"But in the end I am confident, looking at the reaction of audiences I speak to now, that people get sympathy also for her. They feel for her. Not that she was this great mum, that she couldn't be, but that she's also a person, also in a way a victim of her own situation, of her own youth, that she's not only this evil mum from hell, she's a woman with a past. I think in the end she would accept it and I think it would have been very, very good for them to see the film together, the four of them, to just be able to experience it and to talk about it. But I don't know if that's my own fantasy or if that would have been a reality," he says, laughing.

Tom Fassaert

Director Tom Fassaert: "I've always felt this great sadness and this sorrow."

Although the film is about his family, Fassaert had intended to maintain the same dispassionate distance he had on his previous documentary, An Angel in Doel (2011). "Just treating my own family as a subject and not so much as my own family. Which was of course very naive. I was digging very personal stuff up not only to do with the protagonists themselves but to do with my own feelings, and that totally messed up everything. All the boundaries were damaged and everything became intertwined."

And what of those feelings of his? The film focuses on the fallout for Fassaert's father, uncle and aunt, but what effects have dribbled down to his own generation of the family?

"I think that's much more on an emotional level than on a literal level. A little bit of my conclusion after making the film is that I've always felt this great sadness and this sorrow. It's like I've been born with that feeling. It's not related to the personal trauma I had. It's not only the divorce of my parents that is causing that feeling. It's something that's almost inherited. I couldn't find the source. I couldn't find what was making me feel this way. Digging up these feelings and researching them and filming my family, I began to find that not only do our real situations, our circumstances or traumatic events, define who you are, define your character, define how you react to things, it's also inherited – for me by my father and for him by his mother. And that's really part of the legacy. It's not only the way in which these events have an effect on how they treated each other, it's also in how they felt this emotional lineage go on and on and on.

"That's what made me feel so close to René and to my father and even to Marianne in a way, because I felt a very similar something inside of them that made me want to go further. My grandmother was always this actress, always making jokes and being this flamboyant, charming person. But I always felt there was this other side to her that she never showed to anyone. I don't know what it was that made me feel like that. I didn't know the facts. I just knew because I felt something similar inside myself related to that which I saw in her. That there was something of a very deep lonely feeling. A void that had to do with this longing for unconditional love she was looking for that she never found.

"I think it's very clear all the third generations are very much driven by this great longing for a kind of unconditional love we can't find that we need. We need recognition. We need somebody to tell us we're being loved. I feel it very strong with my father. I've always felt he was looking for this, he couldn't find it in his own children, he couldn't find it in his own marriage with my mother, so he was looking for it again in his own mother, who couldn't be the person he wanted her to be."

In the film, Fassaert's father, even though he's a psychologist, describes Marianne as "a born manipulator" – all nature and none of the nurture Fassaert discovers from her childhood.

"That's of course where my father becomes the son, the person, and can't be the professional psychologist anymore," says Fassaert. "At the end of the day, he's still the little boy longing for this recognition and love by his mother."

Does Fassaert have children himself?

"Not yet. I'm in the process of making one," he says.

The film will have given him great pause for thought about parenting, one imagines.

"Really! Yeah, yeah, yeah, and a lot of doubts concerning that. I think through the film I became a bit wiser but also a bit sadder. It put a lot of attention on what parenthood is. The amount of difficulties you can have. What the ideal parent is or can't be."

Understanding and accepting his family more, he thinks "the time is ready now".

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Guy Somerset was the founding editor of ARTicle Magazine. He is a former Books & Culture Editor of NZ Listener and Books Editor of The Dominion Post.