Within the past decade, there has been a couple of notable documentaries that have focused on child molesters, true child molesters, and their effect on people's lives, especially the lives of their families. Even with a great film like Capturing the Friedmans (2003), it didn't address the level of incest and physical abuse that this one does.
Family Affair is told intimately and its filmmaker Chico David Colvard does so with such compassion and grace that the way he handles this subject so delicately it's almost un-fathomable that he would be the son of such an abusive man.
The fact remains that Chico's father, Elijah Colvard, was a nightmare, both physically and sexually. But, unlike Arnold Friedman, Elijah was abusive to his daughters. Friedman, at least, had the decency to rape children who weren't related to him by blood, but not so much with Chico's father, a man who was certainly not above incest.
Yet, the film about the Friedmans centered a lot around the prosecution of Friedman and his son who followed in his father's footsteps. Chico's film doesn't and the reason it doesn't center around his father's is because there was no prosecution. Chico's father was arrested and served one year in prison, but, by all accounts, he didn't get the punishment he deserved, not for severly beating, torturing, molesting and ultimately raping all three of his daughters. Chico's father essentially got away with his crimes.
Chico himself was never abused and didn't realize the extent of what his father was doing until the late 70s and early 80s when things literally exploded following a nearly-tragic shooting. Yet, 20 years later, Chico noticed something curious about his sisters. Despite their father walking free and never having been truly punished for what he did, Chico's sisters were warmly embracing him at their Thanksgiving dinner in 2002.
Now, any rational-thinking person would balk at the idea of having the man who beat and raped them through their childhood now sitting at their Thanksgiving dinner. One might wonder why these victims would be willing to be so festive around and even with their victimizer. Chico certainly wondered that. He also wondered why they seemed more upset or more blaming of each other than their own father.
This film more than anything is about Chico's sisters: Paula, Chici and Angie. He wanted to hear from them, as they talked about the abuse and issues with which they've struggled their whole lives, and try to understand this dynamic they now had with their incestuous father. Of course, they don't forgive him or excuse what he did, but there is a level of acceptance or tolerance that is troubling and perhaps even more disturbing than the abuse itself.
In a phone interview, Chico told me that it wasn't just with his sisters. Talking to other family members and even experts, Chico learned there is a pattern or commonality in the culture at-large where people talk the talk of condeming pedophiles or child molesters but when it comes to men like that in their own family or in close proximity to them, they don't always sing the same tune.
Whether it's something in the fabric of our society or not, Chico reported that, as he's taken this film to festivals or has discussed it with people, this is what people identify the most. If they learned a child molester was someone they closely knew or heaven-forbid a family member, they might not be so quick to go to the police or even un-invite them from Thanksgiving dinner.
Chico's film is an amazing example of this. He said, "What we're seeing here... this story is closer to the truth than that's typically told." And, that truth may be that our society or people in general may give lip service about how horrible crimes like Chico's father are when it's at a distance, but, when really confronted with it, most people may not be strong enough as to face it and more importantly fight it.
Chico told me that his intention was never to make a theatrical or even televised documentary, which I've come to find is usually the best provenance to any stunning documentary. The 43-year-old filmmaker who went to law school said he was "lawyering with a camera" and that he merely watned to "play back the evidence" for his sisters.
He thought he could show them something they couldn't or didn't see. It wasn't to re-open old wounds but perhaps new perspectives. One example is a scene where Chico has all three of his sisters read a letter their estranged mother left them. It is perhaps the most compelling scene in the movie. Understanding why she left has eluded them but through the reading, which Chico brilliantly edits together forces a new perspective. What is remarkable and profound is that it's eye-opening not just for his sisters but for all of us out in the audience as well.
Five Stars out of Five
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences
Running Time: 1 hr. and 21 mins.
Playing at the Chesapeake Film Festival
Saturday 9/25 at 8 p.m. in the Academy Art Museum