Family Affair is director Chico Colvard’s very personal search for answers as to why his three sisters continue to keep in their lives the father who sexually abused them as children. The abuse only came to light after Colvard, at the age of 10, accidentally shot the eldest girl in the leg. (Believing she would die, she decided to spill the beans in an effort to save her siblings from further abuse.) Through standard home-movie footage, old photos, and present-day interviews with relatives (including sisters Paula, Angelika, and Chiquita, their estranged German-Jewish mother, and even their ailing African-American father), Colvard has painstakingly attempted to assemble as many pieces of his family’s history together in an effort to make sense of the unthinkable. Unfortunately, the fragments never quite fit into a cinematic whole.
Mainly, the problem lies in Colvard’s not getting access to his subjects—emotional access, that is. While his kin are more than willing to go on camera and talk about their traumatic lives in a detached clinical sense, it’s quite evident that the childhood dynamic, in which Colvard was shielded from his father and the horrors he inflicted on his sisters, is still in play. We learn that Paula has had a heart attack and a stroke, in addition to over 20 surgeries due to the gunshot wound, that Chiquita has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and that their sadistic father (who contracted syphilis from his own mother when he was a boy living in the deep South) only married their mother as a way of sticking it to the Man, but we don’t get to know any of these people intimately precisely because Colvard himself hasn’t. He simply hasn’t gained their absolute trust. Indeed, Colvard seems about as close to his family members as he does to the esteemed sexual-abuse expert that he also interviews. (And that expert dryly explains that incest is a “powerful reward” because it’s usually the only instance in which a physically abusive parent acts tenderly toward a child. Which brings up the thorny question of why sexual abuse is considered far more horrific than physical abuse in our society when they are equally destructive. The fact that it’s so disturbing to hear Colvard’s sisters admit to enjoying sex with their father says more about our sex-phobic culture than it does about the abuser or the abused.)
With open mind and heart, and with utmost respect, the director films his parents and siblings, but this noble approach is far too tentative, leading to a less than compelling doc. Hovering safely at the margins, the director seems both fearful and detached—never posing questions that can’t easily be dodged, which makes one wonder if Colvard is also on some subconscious level trying to dodge a deeper truth. Instead of digging far below the flashes of anger and rote talk of hate-purging forgiveness all the way to the wounds, Colvard merely skims the surface, waiting for a revelation that never comes. Ultimately, it just seems like the sisters are so focused on embracing their pain that they’ve forgotten to let it (and their father) go. “You’re just coming in at the end of the movie,” Chiquita repeats several times. In other words, the director hasn’t been there over the years to witness the long, drawn-out process, so the best he can hope to capture is secondhand storytelling rather than moving firsthand experience. Colvard is only just getting to know his family as the credits roll.