The Bay Area is a place where, to one’s amusement and embarrassment, people widely declaim their political passions, tattoo their philosophies on their chests and discuss their sex lives all-too-loudly on MUNI. The same combination of bravery and exhibitionism informs the first-person documentary, a diaristic and occasionally confessional approach to filmmaking that has evolved from risky rarity into a full-fledged genre. So one would expect a proliferation, a spate, an epidemic of (let’s just say it) self-indulgent first-person docs by Bay Area filmmakers. To the contrary, local filmmakers are uncommonly selective and even reluctant when it comes to working in the arena of autobiography.
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features by Bay Area independent filmmakers. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best of” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.)
The primary test of a first-person documentary, it seems clear, is that it must transcend the level of home movie. That is, it must be of interest and relevance to people who aren’t blood relatives of the filmmaker. The goal must be to make the specific universal; to expose broad societal issues through intimate access to an individual or family. The usual elements of filmmaking—character, incident and drama—are essential, of course, but the best first-person docs are informed above all by a responsibility to reward the viewer’s generosity and patience.
It was slightly easier picking three Bay Area favorites in this category, which, if extended to my top five would include Marlon Riggs’ angry and poetic Tongues Untied and Ralph Arlyck’s Summer of Love update Following Sean, for the simple reason that the number of first-person docs is much, much smaller than historical documentaries or narrative features. Below: a trio of iconic first-person docs by local filmmakers.
Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1994)
Deborah Hoffmann initially made her name as an editor, collaborating with Rob Epstein and the late Richard Schmiechen on the Academy Award–winning The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). The native New Yorker was not averse to attention yet there was no indication that she had the urgency or ambition to step out of the postproduction shadows and direct her own documentaries. And it was beyond the realm of imagination, as Hoffmann would be the first to admit, that she would “co-star” and narrate a doc of her own conception.
Then her elderly widowed mother, Doris, began showing symptoms of a little known and little understood disease called Alzheimer’s. It would be a cliché, and an inaccurate one at that, to say that Hoffmann started documenting her mother’s evolution as a form of auto-therapy. Nonetheless, much of the power and charm of Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter derives from Hoffmann’s willingness to confide her frustrations, helplessness and distress to the camera.
Alzheimer’s disease is a scourge for any family, but in this case the loss is exceptionally painful. The Hoffmanns’ world was centered around the life of the mind—Deborah’s father, Banesh, was a renowned mathematician and physicist whose 1986 obituary in the New York Times spanned several column inches—and Doris’ contented trade of literature and newspapers for crass daytime TV causes Deborah no little distress.
Fortunately for moviegoers, Deborah Hoffmann has a wonderfully wry sense of humor. With deadpan chapter headings (“The Banana Period”) and self-deprecating narration, Hoffmann warmly invites us into her and her mother’s world. It’s a strange and occasionally uncomfortable place, but we readily enter, sensing that we are being granted an especially gentle tour of our own future (caring for our parents with Alzheimer’s, or suffering the disease’s effects ourselves).
Hoffmann revealed her iconoclastic streak not just by an unexpected reliance on humor, and an understated acknowledgement of lesbian life (through the deft inclusion of her partner, the fine cinematographer Frances Reid), but by releasing a film with a running time of 44 minutes. The odd length proved to be no disadvantage, as Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter won a Peabody and an Emmy and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Hoffmann continued her stellar career as an editor with one other foray into directing—Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2000), directed with Reid and also nominated for an Oscar, which examined four cases before South Africa’s groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
At the time that Vicky Funari made Paulina with Jennifer Maytorena-Taylor, re-enactments in nonfiction films were only found on cheesy cable TV, in PBS docs about Pompeii and in the willfully provocative work of Errol Morris. Because it was not a widely accepted or respected technique, documentary makers who used it ran the risk of breaking the bond of trust they had established with audiences in the first reel or two.
In Paulina, Funari and Taylor used re-enactments instead of the standard approach—a talking-head interview in which pivotal memories are recounted. The filmmakers concluded, out of necessity or artistic impulse, that an interview wasn’t sufficiently effective given the nature, power and distance in time of the events in question. And they were right—the recreations have a dramatic impact that dwarfs that of most oral testimony.
The film centers on a middle-aged Mexican woman who had been a housemaid in Funari’s house in Mexico City when the filmmaker was a child. Although unknown to Funari at the time, Paulina carried scars from her own youth in a village in Veracruz. She had been raped as a child and kept as a mistress by a local feudal boss, crimes that her subsistence-farmer parents may have abetted.
As the title of the film makes clear, it is Paulina’s story, not Funari’s, that is recounted. But the filmmaker (as well as her American father) turn up in brief interviews that help set the modern-day context—and serve a larger, albeit subtle, function. Although personally they are not remotely exploitative, their appearance provides a visual reminder of the First World’s role in either contributing to or prolonging Third World poverty.
By turns wrenching and inspiring, Paulina won a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and aired on the Sundance Channel, and both filmmakers have gone on to make other successful documentaries.
First Person Plural (2000)
Deann Borshay Liem was one of thousands of Korean children who were adopted by American families after the Korean War. She grew up in a comfortable East Bay suburb, and assimilated so effortlessly—at least on the surface—that she became a cheerleader at UC Berkeley. Embraced as a comforting success story in some circles, Borshay Liem strips away the veneer to reveal a far more complicated experience.
Borshay Liem’s marvelous First Person Plural accomplishes many things, beginning with a brief survey of the tumultuous history that resulted in her coming to this country and extending into her ambivalence toward and long-unexpressed confusion over her identity. The filmmaker is powerfully eloquent in addressing the universal question of how an immigrant maintains possession of the touchstones and memories that are unique to her, especially in the face of the loving and well-intended efforts of adoptive parents.
In adulthood, Borshay Liem sets out to deal with her various unresolved feelings, and is stunned to discover that she is not an orphan (that was the Korean orphanage’s story way back when) but her mother is alive. Now the film turns into a roots journey, and a reunion with Borshay Liem’s profoundly moved mother and less enthusiastic siblings. Sure, they’re glad to reconnect with a dimly remembered sister, but it brings up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings about the opportunities and material benefits that she was given and they weren’t.
First Person Plural does a brilliant job not only of illuminating the reality behind a shiny surface, but of meshing a personal story with overarching social forces. The film delivers both revelatory information and a memorable emotional punch, and is a major contribution to the canon of immigrant stories on film. Borshay Liem revisited her own experience, and took it to a level beyond in In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010). Together, the two films offer convincing testimony that identity is fluid and evolving as one proceeds through life.
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