Filmmaker Chico Colvard recently completed his first film, Family Affair. Colvard was a corporate litigator who almost stumbled into filmmaking – and this project – when he started video taping interviews with his family nine years earlier. He discussed his movie, and the production process, at the Discussing the Documentary panel at the recent Independent Film Festival of Boston. The following is an edited transcript of his comments:
My story begins with an accidental shooting when I was ten years old. I had discovered one of my father’s rifles and I was very in to Rifleman at the time. The gun went off and I accidently shot my sister in the leg and she thought she was going to die. Believing she was going to die she revealed to our mother, and then later to the police at the hospital, that our father had been sexually abusing her and our sisters for years. The family came apart.
But for me that’s not really the story. For me the story became trying to make sense of why my sisters, as adult women, consensually still have a relationship with him, and what was that about? What was this need, this strong desire, this longing for family that allowed them to have this relationship with him? I was really trying to unpack that, and there are pieces in the film that I don’t think usually get told around issues of family betrayal, family crises, and issues of incest.
I didn’t start out wanting to make a documentary. I was sort of going in as a lawyer. I had taken film and video courses in college and had done some theater arts and I was using the camcorder to gather evidence. I was then going to present it to my sisters very objectively and say “Look! This is what I see happening every time I come down here to visit. You guys are going after each other when you really should be redirecting your anger at our father, but you don’t. You cater to him, you laugh at his silly little jokes,” and I thought that if I could just get them to see themselves as I do, that we could come together instead of fighting each other. I had some grand idea that I would fix everything.
But what I didn’t count on was one of these times I was doing this on Thanksgiving and my sister invited my father, who at that I point I hadn’t seen for fifteen years. I’d always imagined that I’d beat him up or something, but instead I ended up hiding behind the camera. I was still looking at him through the prism of this terrified little child. I felt like a failure, because I didn’t even confront him or ask him one hard question. It was in that moment that I realized that everything that wasn’t happening; my not confronting him, all the neighbors and people who knew what he did and were cloaking him in this veil of normalcy, that we were all complicit somehow. And it was also in that moment that I realized that there is a story to be told here.
Discussing the Documentary panel: (ltor) Chico Colvard, Rebecca Richman Cohen and Henry Corra
Even though I hadn't made a film before, I'd written stories. We have to write in law school, you have to tell a story, you have to be persuasive. There's a certain sort of craft, a sort of structure that I think transfers quite well into filmmaking. It helps to have really great storytellers involved and help develop that narrative, but I think it starts with the story.
At one point in the film there’s a moment when my sister looks at me and asks “What gives you the drive to do this over and over and over and over again?” and she starts to speculate about what this thing is that I’m doing with the camera. She’s like “I think I know what he’s doing; I think I know what’s going on here. He’s trying to capture all of us on film so that when he leaves us for ever, he’ll have this footage to remember us by.” And that was really powerful for me, because I was running from him. I was literally moving away from all these things that reminded me of my past.
That statement actually had the effect of pulling me closer to them and actually putting myself in the film. Up to that point I was saying “it’s not about me it’s about my sisters,” but I was wrong. I was being a coward again. I wasn’t allowing myself to be as vulnerable as I was asking them to be.
In the first two or three years, it was just me, and I didn’t even want to tell people what I was doing. I would talk about the subject matter in a not very eloquent way because I didn’t really have the language, and I would watch people recoil and then distance themselves from me. So I was very isolated.
The LEF Foundation funding was tremendously important - beyond the money - because the funding gave the same people who used to recoil, permission to have a conversation with me about this. In some instances I would discover that they were closer to this story than I initially thought, and that gave me another layer into thinking about how to develop the story.
And then Rachel Clark, my editor, came on board a couple of years ago. Not only did she get the characters, she got a lot of the subtle nuances. I said to her “it’s really important to me that we not make an incense film,” and she said “that’s perfect; I’d love to work on this project.” We basically set up shop in my house and worked on it six days a week for at least a year.
Rachel was really good at what she does and she would say “You have to have it all transcribed” but I felt like the scenes and the bites and the story were so intimate that I wanted them to demand to be in the film. And if it didn’t demand it, then there were holes, and then and only then did I transcribe. But I resisted, and believe me, there were people that were pissed off at me. I resisted until we actually got a couple of rough cuts, and then I started transcribing and really sort of fine tuning the language.
Later it became a challenge for me to let people in, because all of a sudden I had tons of people wanting in, and giving their input on how to shape this film. I was sort of selfishly thinking ‘I’m almost at the finish line, why am I now going to bring all these people in, and what are they going to do with my film?’ I think my lack of experience and working in such intense isolation for so many years, and my deep personal connection to the subject matter made this a project I had to protect.
Now that I have learned so much I think I would be more willing to let go, because I have a sense of how it should be working and if it’s not happening I know how to step in and do something.
I was very concerned about the production value of the film because when I first started I just picked up a little camcorder. It’s always funny when you’re applying for festivals and things, and they ask the formats that you were shooting on and I’m like “it was something...it was about this big.”
So I tried to up the production value and reshoot all these interviews. I went back to each of my sisters and asked them those same questions, and it was just so flat. Their reactions, everything was completely flat. And one of my sisters, I said to her, “When I asked you this seven years ago you were very emotional,” and she said “I don’t know, I feel like this whole process where you come and ask these questions with the camera, I sort of feel like I’m at my therapist or something, and I just don’t feel the same way. I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to process it, I feel okay about it.”
An interesting question would be “Why didn’t I make that film?” and there is something sort of manipulative about which narrative I’m choosing to tell, and clearly I chose the one that has a more dramatic access point to pull the audience in and get at these issues.
With all the sacrifices it goes from being something that you can not, not do, to something that you have a strong sense of obligation not only to the film, but to all of the funders, and the people, and that army of credits that begins to build at the end of the film.
I don’t take any of this for granted, because the flip side of it all is; I realize how if one thing had shifted or changed the outcome could have been radically different. Some of it’s a little bit random; what films make it or don’t make it? It’s humbling and you realize how part of it is just luck; it’s ‘how did the gate keepers feel today?’
And yet I’m going to turn around and do this all over again.
I have a couple of other projects in the works right now. I feel like the antenna is always up. Part of me has to figure out how to turn that off. Going to the store is a little hard for me, because I’m like “Stores! Yes, maybe make a documentary about stores! No maybe not.” So if you can tell me how to turn it off; is there an off switch?
One filmmaker said to me about a year or so ago, “When you finish your film you’re going to realize that you’re only half way done. And then this whole other really intense work begins; the film festivals and the distribution piece and managing your business.” And another filmmaker said to me, “The biggest mistake first time filmmakers make after they finish their first film and it’s out there in the world, is they fail to use that opportunity as a springboard for their next project.”
And that’s sort of where I’m at, and I’m so grateful that they said that to me.