Airing the Dirty Laundry: Three Documentarians on Making a Film About Their Own Families
Ben Stillerman — director of Taking Stock, a new film about his father’s South African family business — talks with two other documentary filmmakers about the particular joys and challenges of making films about family. Leah Warshawski is the director of Big Sonia, about her inspiring Holocaust survivor grandmother; Kate Dandel’s Gold Balls is about professional senior tennis and features her father-in-law.
Stillerman: I came up with the idea for doing a film about my father and our family business partly because I knew I would have unfettered access to a very interesting person and story. I also knew that no other documentary filmmaker was going to beat me to the punch by making a bigger-budget film about my dad and his eclectic home-goods store in South Africa. Why did this particular film feel necessary for you when you started it?
Dandel: While a family relationship (my father-in-law) was my introduction to senior tennis and I never would have known about this subculture if he hadn’t been a part of that world, I really did not set out to, or want to make a film about, a family member. Once I got the kernel of the idea for the story, I could immediately see a character arc with my father-in-law at the heart of it, but I resisted it initially. Honestly, I think there are too many “searching for my father” stories. I wasn’t interested in film as therapy, and I certainly didn’t want people to see my work in that light.
Warshawski: When we started filming, Sonia was 85 years old and we realized that within our lifetime all of the survivors will be gone. We started out making a short film about her unique tailor shop in the corner of a dead mall — we never intended for the film to be a feature! If we had predicted that intergenerational trauma would be such a core theme, we would not have started filming. This was not something I wanted to dive into at all, but I felt compelled to try and tell Sonia’s story in a way that’s relatable and universal now. The film gives us a tool to do something good in the world and to give people a little bit of hope in a time we need it most.
Stillerman: What kind of reaction did you get from your family during the production? My father was resistant to the shoot almost the entire way through production. He seemed incredulous that anyone would care about anything he had to say, and felt I was largely wasting my time when I could have been making a film about the environment or something “important.” In the end, his pushback to the film plays nicely into our own onscreen relationship struggles and is a regular source of comic relief. He constantly asks me on camera if what I’m doing will earn me a living. Other friends and family were nervous about my intentions, worrying sometimes that I was making a film which would air too much of our family’s dirty laundry — or even worse, worrying that after airing the laundry I’d find no one cared.
Dandel: For us, it varied depending on the person. People have their own filters and ego needs as well as relationships with the family member you’re covering. These all impact their responses to the work, to you and to the subject. I had family members who wanted no part of the project and others who were cooperative and very helpful. I experienced competitive responses — people who implied I had no business being a filmmaker and people who questioned why I found this story and character more interesting than other family members or stories and implied that I was somehow choosing sides. Other more pragmatic and practical people just openly wondered why I was spending time on something so unprofitable. I found it fairly easy to predict how people were going to react and respond, as well as easy to avoid unpleasant interactions, but it might not always work out that way, especially if you’re digging to uncover previously hidden or uncomfortable details.
Warshawski: Sonia has always wanted to be a movie star, so she loved being on camera. She was very patient with us and gave us access to the most intimate parts of her life. Nobody else in my family (including myself) wanted to be in the movie — but now that the film is done and they see how audiences react, everyone is glad they’re in it. For a long time, Sonia thought we were making a film just for the family, because she didn’t really understand that I make films for a living. So you can imagine her delight and surprise that Big Sonia is screening for audiences across the globe and winning awards. The film has given her a new mission and energized her beyond what anyone thought was possible.
Stillerman: Were there topics which were completely off the table during filming?
Dandel: One of the main themes in my film is about the father-son relationship. It became very clear that this relationship could be both both a source of pride and of pain. None of the sons of the living main characters really wanted to go on the record about any negative or conflicted feelings about their fathers. I learned it wasn’t worth pressing, as they weren’t going to divulge much and it wasn’t hard to understand why. Succeeding at competitive tennis requires passion, dedication and, except for the freakishly gifted, a certain selfishness. Kids want to be their parents’ priority, and it’s painful to grow up understanding that you don’t come in first place and that something like tennis ranks ahead of you. This complexity and sense of loss really had to be communicated to viewers through subtext and context.
Warshawski: Sonia’s children were very uncomfortable talking about how their mother had directly affected them — it was the one thing nobody wanted to talk about, and the one thing that became a central theme of the film (intergenerational trauma). Nobody wanted to talk about things that were deeply emotional and traumatic — does anyone really want to talk about that?
Stillerman: I was also hesitant to bring up my own relationship with my father during production. I had never really dealt with my frustration at his inability to communicate, and I had hoped that the film would tell the story of family business in spite of our occasionally dysfunctional dynamic. Because the film is told over the course of one single month of business, at the first stages of the film there are early signs of our frustration with each other. Over the course of production, I felt we could no longer disregard the tension, and the unspoken becoming spoken eventually becomes a core part of the story. Both my father and I resisted admitting it, but the spluttering, uncomfortable honesty about things we would rather not discuss definitely became the soul of the film by the end. Although for us, it took someone else who watched the film to insist that this was the case. How did you balance objectivity with your own personal connection to the film?
Warshawski: I made sure we worked with a talented team to keep me honest. We had many heated discussions about the story flow and what the best thing for the film was versus what was best for me personally. In the end, the film always won — we stuck to our instincts as storytellers and the film is stronger because of it. It helps that I don’t live in the same state as my family, so we had breaks in-between filming where we could come home and prep for the next trip, outside of the daily “drama.” I’ve read a few articles lately about how third generation survivors — grandchildren of survivors — are the best people to tell these stories, because the second generation is too traumatized and too close. So, in a way, this might have been part of my destiny as a filmmaker — to tell a story that only I could tell with some distance.
Dandel: Because the main character wasn’t my immediate family member, it was probably easier to maintain objectivity than it would have been if it had been about my own parent. Including other non-family characters also helped to keep the story out of the psychological weeds. Working with an outside editor also made it easier to be objective. I might have been harder on my characters than my editor was; I would probably have revealed more flaws and warts, maybe overcompensating in an effort to be perceived as objective.
Stillerman: Yeah, editors, the unsung heroes of documentary. Without my wonderful editors, I would have made a film 3 hours longer, much less funny and almost certainly uninteresting to anyone apart from own uncles and aunts. The editors are invaluable for seeing only what is happening on the screen, not seeing what you as the filmmaker wish was on the screen. When the story is about your family, and every glance, comment, and moment between a father and son is infused with years of subtle and slow-simmering emotion that might be invisible to others, my editors helped bring out the balance of personal catharsis and universal appeal that I was hoping for.
Throughout the film production — and even now ,when our film is screening to audiences from South Africa to Oregon — we heard people suggesting that it seemed a very niche subject for a feature film. But I was driven by an intense belief that if you dig a little, there are stories everywhere, and it’s the job of a filmmaker to find the relevance behind everyday interactions and ideas which we think we understand, but have perhaps not examined in detail. Do you think every family has a story worth telling?
Dandel: I don’t. I think we’re drowning in content at this point. Every family has a story but not necessarily one worth investing years and tons of money into sharing. This film was never about my family; it was about themes and ideas with universal relevance: what it takes to be a champion, the ageless human spirit, why should we stay in the fight, why it matters to duke it out in the arena.
Warshawski: The trick is finding elements in your own family story that are relatable and universal on a larger scale — that’s the only way to reach the masses. We were very careful to not pitch the film as a “family film,” and in many cases we didn’t tell people that Sonia was my grandmother until the end of the pitch — more like a punchline than the lead. As soon as people know that Sonia is my grandmother, we have to work a lot harder to pitch the film as more than a “family film.” Before the film was done we just talked about its impact a lot. Now we see and hear impact from audiences, and it’s what we’ve been working for since day one.
Stillerman: How has your relationship with your family changed since making the film?
Warshawski: I think we have a better understanding that although everything looks peachy on the outside, we’re all dealing with our own trauma in different ways. Before the film we weren’t talking about any of this, and now we’re able to have conversations about trauma and there’s a lot of power in shared understanding. I feel like it has ultimately brought us closer and given us reasons to celebrate where we came from, however difficult that might be.
Dandel: My immediate family (my kids, my husband) are glad it’s over and we can go back to taking normal family vacations instead of trips to senior tennis tournaments. My father-in-law is a happier guy. He’s always been pretty iconoclastic and his rough edges would put people off. The film humanized him, and when people understand your background, your challenges, your personality, they give you more slack. So he’s got a few more friends now and also more legitimacy as a competitor. I also think that he appreciates the incredible legacy the film represents.
Stillerman: My father likes the film a lot. I think he was a little blindsided by it when it first came out, because he had suspected it was a film about family business as a general concept, so it was surprising when he saw that it was extremely personal, and the bits that felt raw or embarrassing were all in there. But the film was definitely worthwhile for both of us, and although we haven’t solved everything in our relationship (has anybody?), we are doing pretty well. He’s had a fantastic seeing the film travel around, and the time spent together during production will always be special for both of us. Leah and Kate, it’s so strange and funny hearing your responses to these questions. Our experiences have been parallel, even though the primary topics of our films are so different. I wonder if there is something inherent to the process of documenting relatives that creates an ideal dynamic for documentary: access, emotional immediacy, confidence in the story, and hope for making our family proud.
Taking Stock will be available to stream worldwide beginning February 15.