Saturday movie review: A Family Affair

The documentary A FAMILY AFFAIR is one of those films I'm glad I watched but certainly wouldn't say I enjoyed it. Or liked it. In fact, I didn't like the subject — a grandmother, no less — one single bit.

A Family Affair movie

Yet I couldn't stop watching this film by Danish documentarian Tom Fassaert, who filmed a fascinating attempt to figure out his grandmother, a famous model in the '50s. Primarily, Fassaert hoped to learn exactly what happened to his father, uncle, and aunt at the hands of their mother who left them scarred, sad, and full of secrets.

The filmmaker, at 30 years old, set out in hopes of discovering the truth, the true story about why his grandmother, for decades, had nothing to do with the family nor the family with her.

A FAMILY AFFAIR was not what I expected it to be. I thought it would be some sort of reality TV-like MOMMY DEAREST experience. I suppose it was in ways, as it related to emotional abuse — more so neglect, actually. But it was so much more, much more focused on Marianne Cilliers' bizarre narcissism that impacted, downright injured, her offspring.

I'd be remiss if I didn't warn that were parts of A FAMILY AFFAIR that were downright uncomfortable to watch. The filmmaker's 95-year-old grandma was very un-grandmalike, vocal about feelings a grandmother shouldn't have toward a grandson, feelings I thought would cause Fassaert to scrap the project. Kudos to him for staying professional — and staying a dedicated grandson.

I also found it unnerving to witness Marianne's complete lack of maternal feeling toward her children from an early age and her fully unapologetic attitude about it despite seeing the damage she had caused.

Or maybe she didn't really see the damage. She seemed blind to it, fully incapable of addressing the "painful parts." She preferred to not face the truth, then or now.

Yet it was the truth her grandson longed for.

Truly, her attitude — her entire being, I must admit — just floored me.

It saddened me to watch this compassionate yet questioning (reasonably so!) young man, Tom Fassaert, gently prod and poke and do his best to learn who his grandmother really was and is. To get an honest answer as to why in the world her family mattered so little throughout the years and still — as she neared the end of her life — seemed to not matter much at all.

Tough stuff. And certainly not everyone's cup of tea.

For folks like myself, though, those who are continually amazed and intrigued by the human condition and why people do the things they do — good or bad — it's tough stuff worth watching.

Tom Fassaert, the grandson who dug deep and filmed beautifully this documentary, discusses A FAMILY AFFAIR:


A FAMILY AFFAIR (NR) was nominated at the 2016 European Film Academy Awards and was opening film at the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival) in 2015, where it won the Special Jury Award. The film premiered in select U.S. theaters September 16, 2016. Find out more on the official A FAMILY AFFAIR website.

Disclosure: I received a free screener link for this film; opinions are my own.