Much like with Gayle Kirschenbaum’s Look at Us Now, Mother! (2015), Tom Fassaert’s A Family Affair uses the documentary format to confront, examine and hopefully heal family trauma. But if Kirschenbaum’s documentary borrowed the trappings of dramedy, A Family Affair takes from the mystery genre. At its core is Marianna Fassaert, Tom’s 95-year old grandmother. An imperious, manipulative woman, she abandoned her family in Holland for the sunny climes of South Africa, where she became a local fashion mogul. After a brief estrangement, she invited Tom’s father to join her, offering him a managerial position at one of her outlets. But soon after their family relocated, she disappeared again, stranding them a continent away from home. Now, armed with a camera, Tom struggles to reconstruct the rumors, lies and exaggerations surrounding his grandmother in an attempt to discover who she truly is.
Fassaert draws from a wealth of material. His father was an avid videophile, obsessively filming his family’s everyday life. Early on we are treated to a montage of his father’s footage documenting his birth and childhood: his mother swimming in the ocean, her showering while visibly pregnant, Tom in the hospital moments after his cord was cut, Tom nursing (“It was my first breast.”) and Tom’s first birthday. The footage suggests a happy family. But these show mere comfortable surfaces. As the film progresses we discover a family crippled by repressed emotions and secrets. “I grew up thinking my father didn’t have any parents,” Tom admits. During a party in South Africa after Marianna vanished, we hear one of Tom’s siblings ask if their parents will divorce. Of course not, they soothe. Tom pronounces that they divorced almost immediately afterwards.
Much of the film focuses on Tom’s relationship with Marianna as he records her preparations for a final trip to Holland to see her family. At first we can’t believe any of the rumors we hear about her; she seems too kind, too amiable to have selfishly ruined so many lives. But as she gets more accustomed to Tom’s camera, we find she might be mentally unbalanced. During a recorded interview with her literary agent—she tries and fails to get her biography published—she admits to having romantic, possibly incestuous feelings for Tom. She suddenly announces that she’s disinheriting her son from her will and now intends to leave Tom everything when she dies. Though she has a happy reunion with her family in Holland, afterwards she explodes in a jealous rage when Tom tries to give her a framed photo of them. The reason? Tom’s girlfriend of 8 years was in it. “She’s not family of mine,” she screams, bordering on angry tears.
The trauma Marianna inflicted on her family and its effects cannot be questioned. There are too many tearful interviews to believe they might be exaggerating. But I never got the sense that she was truly a monster. Slightly unbalanced, perhaps, but not the film noir femme fatale so much of the film’s marketing seems to suggest. To me, her abandonments seemed like a defense mechanism against relationships and responsibilities she didn’t feel comfortable with. Consider her youth. As Jews, her family fled Nazi Germany and relocated in Holland in the 1930s. Suddenly freed from violent Antisemitism, Marianna enjoyed an enthusiastic adolescence in a conspicuously pre-birth control Europe. When she inevitably got pregnant, she was forced to marry a man she didn’t love and care for children he didn’t want. Mix that with a tyrannical father who preyed on her insecurities and you have the perfect recipe for a maladjusted young woman.
Marianna died before the documentary could be completed—this isn’t necessarily a spoiler since we see her in a near catatonic state in an obvious flash-forward at the very beginning—so the questions raised by the film ultimately go unanswered. But perhaps that’s just as well. A Family Affair works best as a chronicle of intergenerational family trauma and as an examination of how people use modern technology to alternatively distance themselves from and re-examine their sufferings. It’s a mystery with no solution, only a handful of clues and a smoking gun.