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Chico Colvard presents a ‘Family Affair’

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

April 30, 2010

For the average member of a family that has been rocked by abuse, it isn’t exactly easy talking publically about your own situation. Filmmaker Chico Colvard is not average in this regard, as he spent the last eight years crafting a documentary titled “Family Affair” which delves into the way his own family has handled a legacy of abuse. Colvard brought the film to Brandeis on Monday as part of the SunDeis Film Festival and answered questions afterward.

“Family Affair” begins with a surprising act of violence. Chico recounts how he, as a 10-year-old, shot his sister Paula with one of his father’s guns. Paula, believing she was about to die, revealed to her mother that her father had repeatedly raped her along with her two older sisters, Angelika and Chiquita. Their family was never the same.

This documentary represents Colvard’s attempt to understand what happened to his family after this revelation and, specifically, how his sisters reacted to their abuse. We’ve become accustomed to abuse narratives in which the victims, in the end, are completely liberated from their oppressor. This is not the case with Colvard’s story. Within a few years of their father’s release from prison, all three of his sisters had re-established some kind of parent-child relationship with their father. Chico himself did not speak to his father for 15 years, but eventually he, too, agreed to see him again. Conversely, their mother completely dropped out of their lives, partially because she was aghast that her children would speak to their father again.

The logic behind their decision to see their father is a bit hard to understand for an observer—Chico himself expresses uneasiness with it in the documentary. On the one hand, the sisters all speak about the immense mental and physical toll their father’s abuse had on them—Angelika, for instance, had to have an abortion at age fourteen and, when she later had a child with her husband, was afraid to touch it for more than two weeks as she was afraid she would be an abusive parent like her father. On the other hand, all of them express their interest in keeping their family as intact as possible. Probably the most profoundly disturbing part—both for the audience and apparently also for Chico, who speaks to a psychologist about it in the film—occurs when the sisters speak about how “gentle” their father was when he raped them.

Though the camera’s gaze is almost exclusively on his sisters and parents, one senses that the film served as a kind of catharsis for Colvard. Towards its end, he asks his father why he did the things he did, but, as it turns out, “asking the question was more important than anything he had to say.”

“Family Affair,” while beautifully constructed and told, is not an easy film to watch, but it is an attempt to frame an abuse narrative in a way that diverges from the norm. Colvard’s sisters are not simply presented as poor, tortured saints; they are clearly vibrant people with diverse viewpoints and personalities. Colvard stressed the importance of this as he began answering questions after the film.

“I tried to capture [their sense of humor],” he told the audience, “so that they’re not reduced to the worst thing [in the audience’s mind].”

He described at length the process of making the film.

“I had this ridiculous idea that I could merge my interest in film with my interest in social justice,” he said. “I was lawyering with my camera.”

He stressed the importance of the film to himself, with the impetus for its creation being a “fear of spending the rest of my life with this past.” He described it as being “transformative” in some sense both for himself and his sisters.

“It’s not like I made a film and now we’re all recovered,” he said, cautioning that approaching the issue as he has done is not the ideal for all victims of abuse.

“It’s not for everybody. They get to call their own shots. And it allowed me to stop being judgmental of my sisters,” he said.

His sisters were his primary concern while making the film, as he worried what effect it would have on them.

“I knew I could not turn this movie into an ‘incest film,’” Colvard said.

Though none of them had any idea that his project would turn into a full-fledged feature-length documentary, they gave him their permission to go ahead with it.

“They were supportive and trusting of me … to record their lives in such an authentic and vulnerable way,” he said.

He did not show them any footage of his project until a few weeks before the film’s premiere at Sundance. This meant withholding footage of his mother from his sisters, who had not seen her in 20 years.

“I promised myself that if they said ‘no,’ that I would say ‘no’ to Sundance,” Colvard said.

His sisters accompanied him to Sundance, where they attended two screenings of the film and answered questions about it. Though some have suggested to him that his sisters should accompany him to all his screenings, he thought this would be too “draining” and “intense” for them after Sundance.

“Family Affair” will receive its national debut in 2011 on OWN, the new network established by Oprah Winfrey. Colvard, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is tentatively at work on his next project, a look at “the modern-day consumption of racist memorabilia.”

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