In the very first shot of the film we see Nia, a baby girl, exiting her mother’s womb and entering the world. The newborn is warmly welcomed by her parents–the nurses press her to the mother’s breasts and the father, who encouraged the mother throughout the labour, lovingly praises the newborn’s beauty. When the film ends a year or so later, Nia is embraced by a new family. In between, the film depicts a third family, the family of Matej Nia’s 22-year-old father, who was born to parents with special needs.
Director Rok Bicek and his crew patiently filmed Matej’s life for a decade, since his mid-teens up to the moment when his daring attempts to be a good father to Nia melted in the air. The editing is nonlinear and it’s not always easy to discern the logic that guided the director’s selection of shots–close-ups and one-take shots with occasional zooms and pans. It is, however, clear that it is this family that this carefully crafted observational documentary is talking about, and, exactly because Matej’s family is extraordinary, it offers a provocative but precise metaphor for any family, caught in the discrepancies between the ideal of the family on the one hand, and lived experience of the family on the other.
The Camera‘s Eye
Among all living creatures, Homo sapiens is the least developed when born. While animals are able to live by themselves shortly after they are born, humans need the family in order to survive. Sigmund Freud believed that the majority of the psychological problems of humans are caused by their upbringing within the family. In the early era Soviet Union, as the revolutionaries attempted to build a new world, they believed that they might contribute to the happiness of people living in this new world by eliminating the family from their upbringing. The members of the elite actually got the opportunity to give up their children at birth and let them be raised far from the family, within the so-called Children’s Homes. Yet the grown-up residents of these Children’s Homes proved to have as many psychological problems as the children raised in the “normal” familial environment.
«The true power of this film lies in the fact that it addresses some of the major fears related to the rising insecurities of contemporary societies and the weakening of the social state.»
The good and the bad aspects of the family continue to provide a challenging topic. Entire film corpuses such as the films by Hirokazu Kore-eda are dedicated to it. While Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004), and Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) challenged the myth of the caring mother, others explored the predicaments of fatherhood, most appallingly Vincent Galo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) and Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002). Rok Bicek’s film does not use professional actors, but it would be, I believe, wrong to assume that his protagonists do not act. In the last scene, when Matej’s brother Mitja suggest they go listen to a music CD “in Rok’s car”, it’s Rok the director he’s talking about. The crew and the camera with its always opened and recording eye became part of the protagonists’ lives, and the film makes no attempt to hide it since we can observe protagonists nodding to the camera as they enter the room from the start.
The film won the Critics Week Award at the Locarno Film Festival and the Vesna Award for the best feature film at the Portorož Film Festival in 2017. I went to see the film in Ljubljana where several screenings were completely sold out. Some of the reasons are site-specific, for example Slovene cinema for most of its history neglected common people, and fathers who feel deprived in national child custody procedures find it easy to identify with Matej. Another powerful reason is that, much like contemporary popular media, The Family offers the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking into the lives of underprivileged members of society, similar to the new Romanian cinema and the recent wave of Italian mobster films. However, the true power of this film lies in the fact that it addresses some of the major fears related to the rising insecurities of contemporary societies and the weakening of the social state. Matej’s frustrating desire to be a good father, as particular and personal as it might seem, is also universal. It corresponds to a rather common experience of contemporary men and women and their difficulties in coping with the rising expectations regarding the family and its role in providing a safe and caring environment in the ever-changing world.
«Once “natural” functions of the family are becoming increasingly difficult to perform, as the social state and its support mechanisms are disappearing under the pressures of liberal capitalism.»
Unlike previous historical periods, when the family performed its social role with the help of the state and various supporting mechanisms, today the family is progressively becoming the only place where care of, and, in general, the reproduction of the workforce is taking place. Once “natural” functions of the family are becoming increasingly difficult to perform, as the social state and its support mechanisms are disappearing under the pressures of liberal capitalism.