In Chico Colvard’s intensely personal documentary, Family Affair, he tells the decades-long story of his own family’s struggle with incest, abuse, and communication. After abusing Colvard’s sisters repeatedly throughout their childhood, their father went to jail for a brief period of time, and then resumed his life; amazingly, the sisters found a way to maintain their relationship with him, something Colvard himself was not able to do for many years. During the course of the film, shot over many years, Colvard finds a way confront and engage with his father, while also exploring the multi-faceted relationships that exist within a family.
Family Affair premiered in documentary competition at Sundance this past winter, where it caused a quiet stir; Oprah Winfrey's OWN network picked up the doc for its inaugural Documentary Film Club. It is a moving film that explores notions of family, survival, forgiveness, resilience, and understanding. As Colvard prepares for its theatrical release this weekend, we wanted to know more about his work both in front of and behind the camera.
Tribeca: Family Affair is your first film, and in it you tell such a rough personal story. Were you always planning to be a filmmaker, or did you just feel you had to explore and tell this story?
Chico Colvard: In late 2001, I didn't know that I was making a "documentary." It felt more like I was lawyering with a camera, gathering evidence to present later at trial. I thought that if I could show my sisters how every time we got together, the cordial conversations and light banter would inevitably digress into one about our painful past, that they would then redirect their rage at my father for the crimes he committed against them, and not at each other. I thought I could use the footage to both indict my father and help repair my sisters.
I never set out to make a film. When my sisters invited me to spend Thanksgiving 2001 with them in Kentucky, I decided to bring along a small camcorder. It was only after I arrived that I learned my father would also be there; this would be the first time I'd seen him in 15 years. I'd always imagined that after all this time, I'd confront him for what he did to my sisters. But when he walked through the door, I watched my sisters, their kids and neighbors warmly greet this man, laugh at his pithy remarks, and cater to his every need. It was absurd. Disturbing. And rather than confront him as I had always imagined, I was instead reduced to a terrified child, hiding behind the camcorder as my father's large torso filled the frame.
When I returned to Boston, I felt like a coward who failed to condemn my father and rally my sisters and neighbors behind this cause. But eventually, I came to understand that this is the story—the things we weren't talking about or confronting. From here I moved from wanting to indict my father and repair my sisters to questioning why everyone was accommodating this man who did these terrible things.
The way I'd always seen child molestation presented in the media was that you'd have the victim/survivor and the offender. Once the abuse was brought to light, the two would go their separate ways: the offender banished to the margins of society, and the victim/survivor set on a path of recovery or revenge. But never would the two voluntarily come back together and form a seemingly "normal" father-daughter relationship. I had to ask myself, "Why?"
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about the (long) process of making this film?
Chico Colvard: I’m now entering my 9th year of working on Family Affair. For several years, I worked part-time on the film while teaching. This was deliberate: in order to establish trust between me and those in front of the camera, a certain period of time had to elapse. I also became interested in wanting to capture the growth of those in the film: How were they aging? How were their health, opinions and relationships progressing? In 2007, I stopped teaching full-time and committed to finishing the film.
Tribeca: Were your sisters ever reluctant to participate?
Chico Colvard: My sisters were always supportive of what I was doing—even when I wasn’t quite sure myself. At every critical juncture, I would check in with them to be sure I had their support to move forward with the film. I’d always promised them that if ever they objected to the film, I wouldn’t put it out into the world. I know that the official world premiere of Family Affair is marked as January 2010, when it screened in competition at Sundance, but for me, it will always be months earlier, in 2009, when I took the final cut to Kentucky and watched it on a living room TV with my sisters. Not only did they remain supportive of the film and its potential to help others talk about their own family crisis, but it was the first time we sat as adults and constructively faced our terrible past. My sisters showed their continued support by attending the screenings and Q&As at Sundance, where they were remarkably brave and courageous. It was and continues to be a magical and intense experience.
No one ever expressed any reluctance to being on-camera—quite the opposite. Everyone spoke to me or carried on as if the camera wasn’t there. I almost always filmed alone, which often made for very raw and authentic moments.
Tribeca: How common do you think it is for abused children to reconcile with their abuser as adults?
Chico Colvard: I don’t know if I’d say that Family Affair is a story about reconciliation, nor do I consider myself an expert in this field. Dr. Judith Herman, however, who is the only “talking head” briefly featured in the film, is a leading authority in this area of trauma and recovery, and she contends that it’s quite common for the father-daughter or -son relationship to continue (a) without public disclosure or criminal charges ever being made, and (b) for several years, if not indefinitely, after the abuse has stopped.
Studies from the National Crime Victimization Survey, Bureau of Justice, National Institute of Justice and the FBI show that nearly 25% of all women are sexually abused by someone they know during childhood—so family members are often implicated. The incestuous fathers and their families also fall into a wide cross-section of society, including the unemployed, housewives, artists, lawyers, rabbis, priests, teachers—all generally well respected and trusted people from various ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations and social groups.
The way I’d always seen the relationship between the abused child and the offender presented in the media was much more clearly defined than what I present in Family Affair. Typically, the media will show the abuse brought to light, then the abuser and victim/survivor go their separate ways. The abuser is banished to the margins of society, while the victim/survivor is left to recover or seek revenge. Never do the two voluntarily reunite and forge a seemingly “normal” father‐daughter relationship. But again, Dr. Herman, several other experts, and the many people who come up to me after screenings will tell you that our story is much closer to the truth than what commonly plays out in the media.
Tribeca: Have you come to terms with your sisters’ decisions?
Chico Colvard: I’ve long since moved beyond judging my sisters for maintaining a relationship with our father and have come to understand their eternal longing to create a family structure that was better than what they had growing up, which of course they deserve.
More importantly, I’ve come to appreciate how brave they were to confront their offender and insist that he play his part as a father to his current wife and children, and as grandfather to my sisters’ kids. As a result, I feel strongly that they may have prevented my father from re-offending and created an environment for my nephews and nieces that allowed them to develop into fairly well adjusted people.
Tribeca: What was the biggest challenge in making the film: financial or emotional?
Chico Colvard: The greater challenge for me was by far emotional. For example, when I first started interviewing my father, I knew that I had to ask why he molested my sisters. But I also knew that my father possessed the power to derail the project by simply saying, "I don't wish to participate." He could opt out, not sign a release form and ask that the cameras stop rolling.
So for years I'd show up with my camera and simply gather as much background material on my father as possible; I kept waiting for him to bring up the issue, but that never happened. Finally, I got a call from my sister saying that our father was in the hospital and he might not make it. I went to visit him with camera in hand, realizing that this may be my last chance to ask, "Why?" After five years of avoiding the question, I asked and was immediately liberated from the hold he had over me.
I was 39 years old at the time, but it was the first time I truly felt like a man. I had always imagined this scene as being contentious, in either his response or my reaction to his response. The scene is crucial to the narrative arc of the film, but not in how I initially envisioned it playing out. You hear me ask the question and him start to explain as I slowly lower the volume on him. Some people during rough-cut screenings said to me, "I want to hear everything he had to say about why he did what he did." But for me the scene is more powerful not hearing him attempt to justify what he did. I wanted the scene to unfold as I experienced it standing there in that hospital room; I realized that asking the question was more important than anything he had to say.
Tribeca: As a first-time director, what is your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Chico Colvard: I created a work schedule and stuck to it; that meant having to say, “no” a number friends, family and work opportunities. I think this is a critical stage for aspiring filmmakers. The temptation and pressure to revert to your routines—often when you have nothing to show for a “film” that does not and may not ever exist—takes a certain amount of discipline and courage. A strong and compelling story is necessary to carry you through this uncertain time.
Persistence is necessary, but avoid being a pest.
If there’s an established person in the industry you’d love to talk to or gain support from for your film, don’t hesitate to reach out to them. I was remarkably surprised at how consistently and these folks would respond. The hardest part was figuring out how to get their contact information.
When you have the opportunity to discuss or present your work—regardless of what stage it’s at—make sure you put your best foot forward.
Always follow up and be responsive.
Set clear goals and deadlines for yourself. To this end, applying for grants will help and the structured writing process will help to better shape your film.
Before making any major decisions about your film and career (trailer, rough cut, final cut, key crew members, selecting a post house, film festivals, broadcast deals, etc), be sure to consult with your most trusted advisors.
And now that you’re ALL consumed with your film and it looks like it might have a life out there in the real world, be sure to spend quality time with the people who care about you
Tribeca: What’s up next for you as a filmmaker?
Chico Colvard: I’m working on a doc that examines a series of love stories about racist memorabilia.