What’s the Matter with Grandma? A Family Affair

familyaffair2  A Family Affair
Directed by Tom Fassaert
Opens September 16

What bonds grandchildren and grandparents is sharing a common enemy, goes an old joke—a reminder that the relationships we rely on most can be, for that very reason, fraught with danger. Those perils find vivid, discomfiting form in A Family Affair, the second feature by Dutch documentarian Tom Fassaert. A first-person investigation into the mystery of Fassaert’s maternal grandmother Marianne, the film makes for an unexpectedly harrowing family chronicle, dredging up some painful history and recording more as it’s being made.

Before acquainting the audience with Marianne, Fassaert surveys the human wreckage she left in her wake and the shadow it cast on his own upbringing. Seemingly for the mere convenience, she abandoned her two young sons (Fassaert’s father Rob and uncle René) to an orphanage, returning for occasional visits, by all indications oblivious to the emotional whiplash she inflicted on her children. Both men testify on camera, verbally or otherwise, to lives spent nursing those wounds.

Decades later, she repeated the same trauma across generations. Having persuaded Rob with the promise of a job to move his family to South Africa, she later terminated his employment and cut off contact altogether, without warning or explanation. Tom credits that episode from his childhood, and the stories told about her in her absence, for the outsized proportions his grandmother’s legend has taken on in his imagination—which leads him, when invited to visit the grand lady herself, to accept, camera in hand (or harness, as the case may be).

The director’s documentary impulse is actually something of a family trait: he relates the freighted backstory with help from extensive home movie footage, culled from nearly 100 hours shot by Rob over more than a decade. (The detail, noted in passing, that when his marriage ended Rob abruptly gave up this hobby, suggests a rabbit-hole deep enough to contain films of its own yet unmade.) Marianne, for her part, clearly thrills to being the center of attention and doesn’t care for Tom to spoil that with questions about her shortcomings as a parent.

No less than he wants to drag the unpleasant past out into the light of day, the director wants to humanize his grandmother—he does so most effectively in glimpses of the deep insecurities which drive her—and to believe she could be capable of building a healthy relationship. Marianne’s response to that opportunity comes as a genuine shock, even as Tom and, by extension, the audience have been forewarned to consider her capable of anything. Ultimately, Tom’s endeavor provides him no answers, only an object lesson in the opacity of the human mind.

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