The truth is elusive in A Family Affair, Tom Fassaert’s fearlessly personal portrait of his family, specifically his 95-year-old grandmother, Marianne Hertz. A German-born model who relocated to the Netherlands, Hertz twice put up her two oldest children for adoption in her pursuit of a modeling career. Eventually they would reconnect, though it was scarcely a happy reunion. While living in South Africa, Hertz promised a job, already lined up, to Fassaert’s father, Rob, but upon relocating his family there, he learned that Hertz never told him the job didn’t materialize. Fassaert, who never even knew that his grandmother was alive when he was a child, uses A Family Affair as a means to make sense of these and other tribulations.
Some attempts have been made by Fassaert’s family, including his ex-psychologist father, to write a candid biography of Hertz, but to no avail. As Rob states at one point in the film, Hertz wears an impenetrable metaphoric mask; if the mysteries surrounding Hertz’s life are left open-ended, it’s because only she knows the answers, and isn’t willing to share them. And it’s this stubborn refusal that threatens to turn Fassaert’s search for the truth into a fool’s errand. Though Fassaert is critical of his grandmother by including testimonies about her unnerving lack of parenting skills from Rob and his older brother, Rene, Fassaert also presents her with a measure of sympathy by simply observing her daily routines and social dates without judgment, as if such consideration will lead him to the truth he seeks.
Throughout A Family Affair, time is continually collapsed to the point where events separated by many years bleed into one another; the distinctions between each is the format they were captured on, be it old black-and-white film, VHS, or crisp HD. This gives the impression of the film being transmitted from someone’s memory, or a journal comprised of unorganized entries. In one mesmerizing sequence, Fassaert crosscuts between a present-day safari he undertook with Hertz and one that Fassaert’s family went on years ago, suggesting that a happy reunion for his family may only be possible through the distortive lens of nostalgia. And by the end, Fassaert seems to accept as much, and that some things, as Hertz warned, will forever remain unknown.