Film About a Father Who (2020). 74 minutes. Directed by Lynne Sachs. Featuring Ira Sachs, Lynne Sachs, Ira Sachs Jr., Dana Sachs, and Rose Sachs.
When Lynne Sachs’s intimate and mesmerizing personal documentary Film About a Father Who opens, we see a closeup of fingers trying to untangle a knot in someone’s white hair. The camera reveals that the hair belongs to an older man whose eyes close in pain at the fingers’ attempt to unsnarl the mess. He cries out in discomfort, and a woman’s voice says, “Sorry, Dad. There’s just one part that’s very tangly.” We then cut to a wide shot of a room where books and photos crowd every inch of its floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves and we see Sachs, comb in hand, standing behind her father, Ira, who sits on a chair. While her father’s long hair might have one tangly part, his life, which the film unravels with loving complexity, is a Gordian knot of secrets and desire.
Shot between 1965 and 2019 by Sachs, her brother Ira Sachs Jr., and her father, the film weaves a visual tapestry of a family’s attempt to come to terms with its own identity as its enigmatic patriarch remains forever just out of reach. Blending 8mm and 16mm film, VHS, Hi8, MiniDV, and digital footage, About a Father is a visual marvel, a study of the longing for the past that older film and video technologies evoke in viewers. Instead of being displayed in a chronological procession, however, the film jumps from decade to decade and from 8mm to digital to VHS. Like our memories of those who have been by our side since childhood, About a Father blends decades and styles, arranged around emotional beats instead of the order in which events unfolded.
As we see handheld 16mm footage of her father as a young man lying happily in a field of dandelions, Sachs explains through narration, “Dad had his own language and we were expected to speak it. I loved him so much that I agreed to his syntax, his set of rules.” That syntax includes a gentle yet constant refusal to answer certain questions, in particular those that pertain to his relationships with the wives, mistresses, and girlfriends that populate his life to this day. Sachs, her brother Ira Jr., and her sister Dana, come from her father’s first marriage, but as the film unravels we encounter the various children that descend from his countless other romantic relationships.
Sachs and her two full siblings are left to discover these new brothers and sisters over the years and to figure out how to develop closeness with these increasingly younger people with whom they share so little and yet so much. Several of the film’s interviews feature characters in backlit closeup profiles to the side of the screen, so that only part of their face is visible. Like Sachs, we see only fractions of the characters we meet, trying to piece together a puzzle that by its very nature will always be incomplete. And yet, an incomplete image is better than no image at all when it comes to understanding our families and our places within the larger communities they represent.
The film is generous in its portrayal of Sachs’ father and achingly vulnerable in its attempt to make sense of the wake of affection and resentment he has left behind. Sachs takes a story that could have been overly dramatic and judgmental and instead constructs a nuanced meditation on what it feels like to love someone whose actions have hurt us and others. Toward the end of the film, she explains, “This is not a portrait. This is not a self-portrait. This is my reckoning with the conundrum of our asymmetry.” As she says this, the camera in 16mm follows her father, who seems to be walking in a circle and smiling at the lens, present but always out of reach. And yet, in this compelling and genuine documentary, she has captured his essence and taken the audience on a hypnotic and profound journey. Anyone who has ever found themselves confounded by unexpected revelations about those closest to us will find themselves in this film and walk away from it with a deeper understanding of their own lives, even if they don’t solve the conundrum of Ira Sachs’s asymmetry.