Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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NICK BROOMFIELD: MY FATHER AND ME (2019) - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)

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MAURIE BROOMFIELD AND SON NICK

Portrait of a father and of a changing country

My Father and Me isn't like Nick Broomfield's searching, sometimes unpleasant documentaries but a warm and affectionate portrait of his late father, a great English industrial photographer - his work showed “the beauty and might of post-war industrial Britain” - the "industrial sublime" - who passed away at the age of 94, of whom Nick's son Barney, speaking with an American accent he must have learnt from his American mother, says "that is the kind of dude I want to be when I'm 94." Maurice is what Nick called him; he never liked being called "dad." (And remember you Yanks, the English pronounce Maurice "Morris.") Maurice had beautiful wife, like a movie star, who was a Czech Jewish refugee. She died rather suddenly at 60 from skin cancer, and Maurice feel into a very serous depression that lasted some years.

But he had a whole rebirth. His relations with Nick had long ago become warmer. Through art class, Maurice met Suzy, and the two of them clicked: a late-life id;ll ensued full of marvelous adventures. Through Nick's encouragement, Maurice's photographs were brought out. Many of the negatives had deteriorated from bad storage, but very attrative young women for the V&A came to catalogue and preserve them. The prints were exhibited in museums and Maurice basked in this renewed recognition.

These photographs reflect Maurice's origins in the industrial northern town of Derby (second Yank warning: pronounced "Darby"), whose grimness he kept mum about, and his father's leftist faith in factories and the working class. They are a kind of imagery not seen anymore, glamorous, staged, elaborately lighted portraits, but always with people, lovingly and flatteringly posed. Reprinted large and shown in a gallery it's clear what they are: works of art. The pacifism and humanism of the artist can be seen, I guess, in which of Nick Broomfield's 30-odd films his father liked best: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, a film that shows the Wuornos' human side. A clip from it here shows that, for this is about Nick too.

There is plenty of footage and plenty of stills of Maurice, of Nick, of Barney - great friends apparently toward the end of Maurice's long life - and of the women in their lives who include Nick's American wife and early collaborator Joan Churchill. Shots and arcival clips of this family invariably show good looking people generally having a good time.

In a Times review of Nick's 1998 documentary Kurt and Courtney, an unrevealing but ultimately controversial portrait, Janet Maslin said his "offbeat investigative tactic" was "burrowing into scuzz." But she notes he's a "deceptively mild-mannered British filmmaker whose favorite interview question seems to be 'Really?' " He's mild-mannered and understated here, but there's no "burrowing into scuzz." Maslin wound up finding the result engrossing. My direct experience of Broomfield is his 2014 investigation Tales of the Grim Sleeper. He was present at the NYFF press screenings for that. But even more impressive to me was Nick's 2007 Battle for Haditha, a recreation of a real event in the Iraq war using real Iraqis speaking Iraqi ARabic and real Marines. Nick Broomfield is an impressive filmmaker and an influential one who ought to be more influential.

All that isn't much needed here, but the mild-mannered and understated English Jew is typically present, unconcealed, in this pleasant and interesting portrait of his father and the family context from which he comes. Incidentally this is a personal portrait of drastic and discomfiting changes occurring in England, especially to the industrial north, over the last century. All that honor, beauty and pride of the English industrial worker seems thrown away now. "Maurice found it heartbreaking that the skills and expertise of generations of the most highly trained craftsmen in the world were being allowed to die out. The pride of the working class community that Maurice had grown up in no longer existed." Alongside the pleasant fading away of a good looking, admirable old man accompanied by his loving and loved wife Suzy and loving son and grandson lurks this side truth that's quietly devastating.

My Father and Me, 97 mins., debuted at the New York Film Festival Oct. 2019; also shown at Chicago (Oct. 2019) and Tel Aviv (Docaviv) Jul. 2021. Screened for this review as part of the SFJFF, Jul, 22-Aug. 1, 2021. BFI review.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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