Like Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, Mikael Wiström and Alberto Herskovits’s Familia manages to make a universal issue—the plight of the many immigrants who leave behind their loved ones to make a living far from home—personal by focusing on one family in particular: an older Peruvian couple, their grown son and daughter, and young school-age son. The filmmakers follow both the matriarch, Nati, as she begins her new life as a maid in Spain, and those forced to fill her void back in Lima. What’s most remarkable, however, is the intimate access the Swedish co-directors get, a result of their having known Nati and her kin for over 35 years. This allows not only for the family to be completely open and at ease in front of the lens, but also for black-and-white flashbacks that aren’t recreations but real-life footage, giving us a contextual glimpse into the couple’s hardscrabble past as pickers at a massive landfill.
Set to a string score as subtle and unobtrusive as the camerawork, the doc illuminates the little things in life, like an unpaid phone bill, that suddenly take on deeper meaning. As a result of filmmaking both respectful and restrained, an array of poignant images, in wide and long shots as well as in close-ups, emerges. The term “a world away” becomes both literal and metaphorical as the woman who spent years rifling through a garbage dump now finds herself folding sheets at a luxury resort. But Familia, at its heart, is less a tale of global migration than it is a poetic love story. “Would you like to marry me when you come home?” the father of Nati’s three kids, who works as a motorbike taxi driver and struggles to walk, asks his partner of 31 years over the phone as he flips through old photos of them raising their kids. The amount of the couple’s love is greater than the sum of their poverty.
Touchingly, more tears are shed at the family’s reunification, when it’s finally safe to break down and release all that’s been held in stoically for a year and a half, than at any other time in the film. Only then is it feasible for daughter Judith, who had to take over as woman of the house, to reveal how overwhelmingly burdened she felt, but also comforted knowing her mother was “resting” from the daily routines of hardship. A heated argument gives way to the couple’s long-awaited wedding day, and Nati’s unwavering belief in love conquering all—in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer—has finally been put to the test. Without a doubt, both the family and their caring documenters pass with flying colors.
This year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 16 – 30. For more information, click here.