Family Affair
Directed by Chico David Colvard

Like Jonathan Caouette, Sarah and Emily Kunstler, and, most recently, Donal Mosher before him, Chico David Colvard makes his family’s personal history the subject of his feature debut as a documentary filmmaker.

He’s certainly got quite a story to tell: growing up, Colvard led a seemingly normal life as the youngest child in a family of five that included three sisters, a stern, but doting father and a withdrawn, but caring mother.  Then when he was 10 years old, he was involved in an accident that completely upended the family’s existence.  While playing with his dad’s loaded rifle, Colvard shot one of his elder sisters in her leg, sending her straight to the emergency room.  In between operations, she confessed that she had her sisters had been molested by their father for years.  Events moved swiftly for the children after that—their father was arrested and sentenced to jail time, their mother won a divorce and moved away and the kids moved in with different relatives and foster parents.  Colvard didn’t see his father for fifteen years, finally meeting him again at a family Thanksgiving in 2002, where he was greeted warmly by the now-grown women he had abused all those years ago.

The experience of watching his sisters casually talk and laugh with their dad spurred Colvard to pick up a camera and tell his family’s story.  The resulting film is obviously very personal—sometimes painfully so—but Colvard thankfully isn’t interested in wallowing in past miseries.  Instead, Family Affair is a surprisingly sober portrait of the lingering effects of childhood abuse.  The tone is set by Colvard’s sisters, all of whom agreed to be interviewed and are remarkably forthright and candid about their complicated feelings towards their father and how his actions impacted the rest of their lives.  One sister even admits to enjoying their encounters, not just because of the physical pleasure of sex but also due to the attention and care he lavished upon her.  (In fact, the girls’ refusal to reject their father outright was one of the reasons that their mother chose to leave the family–she couldn’t understand why they continued to feel any affection for him.)  Another describes how she was initially afraid to touch or hold her newborn son, convinced that she would feel compelled to abuse him too.  It’s clear that the women are suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, sympathizing with their abuser on one hand and loathing him on the other.  One sister sums it up thusly: “It’s like two feelings going on there.  One: Daddy’s nice, he’s cool, I’m not going to think about the past.  Then the other, I ain’t forgot what you done, motherfucker.”

Naturally, their brother is unwilling to diagnose them to their faces; rather he attempts to play the role of an impartial observer (albeit one that’s able to use his personal connection to his subjects and the situation to remind them of details a stranger wouldn’t know) that’s there to listen to them without passing judgment or rendering a verdict.  (He does briefly sit down with a psychiatrist and plays her footage from his interviews and she agrees that they are displaying classic tendencies of Stockholm syndrome.)  Colvard is similarly reluctant to confront his elderly, infirm father on camera, instead hoping the man will do the heavy lifting for him and apologize for his wrongdoing without any prompting.  (That doesn’t happen, though.)  Family Affair might have benefited from more rigor on the director’s part; he made this film to learn about and come to terms with his family’s past, but seems uncertain how to process everything he learns.  Still, the process obviously helped Colvard and his sisters heal in some small way and may have the same effect on certain viewers as well.

Family Affair opened at New York’s Quad Cinema on Friday, November 19.  Visit the film’s official website to learn about upcoming theatrical release dates.  The documentary has also been acquired by Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network and will air as part of the channel’s Documentary Film Club.