While director Lynne Sachs admits her latest documentary Film About a Father Who could be superficially construed as a portrait (the title alludes to and the content revolves around her father Ira), she labels it a reckoning instead. With thirty-five years of footage shot across varied formats and devices to cull through and piece together, the result becomes less about providing a clear picture of who this man is and more about understanding the cost of his actions. Whether it began that way or not, however, it surely didn’t take long to realize how deep a drop the rabbit hole of his life would prove. Sachs jumped in to discover truths surrounding her childhood only to fall through numerous false bottoms that revealed truths she couldn’t even imagine.
What shouldn’t be lost amidst Ira’s growing list of transgressions is the fact Lynne loves him regardless. Each revelation is obviously tough to swallow, but she meets them with a foot in two worlds. They affect her personally as far as familial connections go, but also intellectually as an artist capturing this emotional story in real time. So while knowing what she knows can’t help but color him as a selfish person possessing little remorse where it concerns the impact of his choices upon others, he’s still her father. He’s still a “good” man who treated Lynne and her two siblings (Dana and Ira Jr.) with love. She doesn’t therefore pry when Ira consistently pleads the fifth. She knows he’ll never confront what he doesn’t think was wrong.
In his mind it wasn’t. In his mind divorcing her mother was an act of grace because he knew he couldn’t live his life monogamously. That doesn’t stop him from marrying again, having affairs again, or continuing destructive patterns shrouded in secrecy again. Ira is a man of contradictions and impulses that he’ll never escape. He’s a man who’s willing to overlook the idiosyncrasies of others because he wants you to overlook his—comfortable in the reality that yours will probably never touch his in a million years. And with each new chapter in his swinging lifestyle arrives more collateral damage. Each new woman on his arm or in his bed brings with her an ever-escalating danger due to a desire not to hide despite hiding so much.
And through it all is a home video of three children playing—a happy moment removed from the rest. We hope Ira shared similar moments with all his children no matter their mothers’ identities, but that isn’t realistic. To hear Lynne interview her father’s second wife Diana Lee for her side of their story reveals as much even if we get a sense that her sons Evan and Adam were loved. Can the same be said about Mallory Chaffin and her daughter Annabelle, though? What about Madison Geist and her mother? What about the potential for more? At a certain point Ira simply can’t give them everything they need and keep up appearances with a mother (Rose Sachs) who doesn’t approve (and lives past one hundred years old).
Therein lies the reckoning. Lynne and those who came first must reconcile what every new character means to them. Can they love each as members of their family despite initial contact happening well past the point of “normal” introduction? Can they continue seeing their father in the same light after discovering the diminishing levels of economic and moral security their successors faced in part because of what they had? Just because Ira didn’t feel (or at least show) guilt doesn’t mean his offspring won’t once they’re exposed to the truth. The psychological ramifications are too extensive and too catastrophic to sweep under the rug. Lynne’s daughter and half-sister being the same age is awkward, but another half-sister living in poverty unaware that this support system existed is monstrous.
They must all live with it now and deal with the vulnerability of those less fortunate than them, knowing they were purposefully prevented from doing anything to help. That’s a lot to take in and even more to willingly put out into the world via cinema. So many of those on-screen break down into tears because of the weight of their existence within this one perpetually smiling man’s shadow. Some can’t stop themselves from loving him unconditionally or in certain cases irrationally and others can’t wait to use the insanity of their experience as an example of what not to do when building their own families in the aftermath. To everyone’s credit, however, nobody runs from it. They face the challenges of their unwieldy family with open arms.
And Lynne Sachs captures it with immense compassion. She could have vilified her father, but doing so wouldn’t have changed anyone’s current circumstances. Instead she lets his actions speak for themselves thanks to his duplicity being caught on camera multiple times throughout these last three decades. She lets her extended branch of siblings speak their truth and exorcise their demons without judgment. Everything is laid out and they must now do what they must to accept it. This film isn’t therefore about righting wrongs, but exposing facts Ira kept locked away until it either benefitted him or could no longer stay hidden. Knowing their happiness came at the price of another’s pain (and vice versa) is the burden he bestowed upon them. Their hope is to be better.
Film About a Father Who premiered at Slamdance.