J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Family Affair: Grandmother Dearest

Marianne Hertz might be the worst mother seen on film since Mommie Dearest, but at least Faye Dunway’s Joan Crawford was committed to parenthood on some level. Hertz apparently consigned her son Rob Fassaert to an orphanage for several years, like it was a couple hours of daycare. You could also call her a problematic grandmother for vastly different reasons as viewers will see in Tom Fassaert’s excruciatingly uncomfortable documentary, A Family Affair (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Do not confuse this film with the Brian Keith sitcom or the Sly Stone greatest hit. Fassaert’s Family Affair is the sort of doc that is so revealing, it goes past voyeurism to become a masochistic form of art cinema. When Rob Fassaert was three, he and his older brother Rene were given up for adoption. A few years later, Hertz reclaimed them, but she would be an unyieldingly cold and judgmental mother from that point on. As a child, the filmmaker assumed his father was an orphan, until his grandmother suddenly swept into their lives—and swept out just as quickly. Not surprisingly, his father still wrestles with issues of neglect and abandonment, while his uncle is a basically a shell of a man. Yet, he was intrigued enough to accept his grandmother’s unexpected invitation to her South African home.

At this point things really get awkward. As Fassaert struggles to interview Hertz for the project that will become A Family Affair, she professes a thoroughly creepy romantic interest in her grown grandson. It might be more a function of her extreme vanity or perhaps a desire to inflict further pain on her sons, but it is just gross.

Oh, but the Fassaert-Hertz family is just getting started. The documentarian grandson will briefly humanize his grandmother with revelations of her Jewish heritage and difficult experiences during WWII, but she undoes it all by really unveiling her dark side late in the third act. At one point, Hertz taunts Fassaert claiming he will never really know the truth about their family. Au contraire, madam. Most viewers will feel like they know more than enough straight dope on her family—too much, really.

This is not a fun film to watch. Frankly, it would be easier to understand Fassaert burning his footage rather than releasing this kind of dirty laundry into the world. Still, we have to give him credit for holding nothing back (as we can only assume). It is compelling as a train wreck, but any attempt to justify the gawking as an attempt to build awareness for issues of child neglect, mental health, or geriatric care are just reaching. Recommended for fans of extreme reality docs, A Family Affair opens this Friday (9/16) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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