I wonder why some fathers appear to their adult children as mystery men. Is it just hard to see them for who they are, outside of the father child relationship? Is it that some fathers are uncomfortable expressing their feelings so they stay hidden, as the strong, silent type? Or when they pass too early, perhaps we’re unable to see them through adult eyes. And so, they become mystery men.
I know my father was a good man, but I’m not sure I got who he was, outside of being my dad. I only learned about some of the events that defined his early life after he passed. I’ve even thumbed through a diary, but its yielded few clues. So, how do you get to understand that mystery man?
Perhaps you’ve asked yourself that question. Growing up, maybe you rarely connected beyond the ritual moments of family life. A person can be so removed, perhaps you were left with no way in.
Charlie Tyrell Asks a Question
That question, “Who was my father, really?” haunted Canadian filmmaker Charlie Tyrell. He felt estranged from his father, who died when Charlie was a young man. Wanting to understand the man and explore what made him tick, he decided to make a film.
Charlie Tyrell, from the Sundance site
Charlie: “This film was kind of made out of a feeling that I hadn’t completely settled my grief… I felt like I never got to know him as an adult and had to acknowledge that I would never be able to know him from that perspective. So this was me as a fully formed adult taking what I had left of him and what we all knew of him to try to build that to develop a better understanding of him.”
Charlie’s effort to understand his father launched him on an archeological dig of sorts as he poured through the wealth of tools, tapes and detritus left behind after his dad passed away. Maybe the essence of the man lay buried somewhere in all that stuff. Charlie hoped animating all those objects would help animate his father. The result is a whimsical and poignant film Charlie calls, “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.”
I want to be clear, the film is not about porno, but about the things left behind and Charlie’s struggle to make them speak to him (and us) about his father’s legacy.
I’ll add that I have my own collection of things my mother and father left behind and I like to mull over them now and then. I guess that’s why it’s easy to identify with Charlie’s efforts to unravel the mysteries of his father. See what you think – his video is on the short list as a contender for an Academy Award. I apologize for the ad that precedes the video.
Charlie’s Award-Winning Video
Charlie’s Creative Approach
I found Charlie’s video very moving. It starts in one place, with the home movies and that crazy collection of things left behind, and gradually moves to a much deeper understanding of the family dynamics that shaped his father’s personality. It’s a great example of storytelling.
Having another voice narrate the video creates a quirky third person perspective that enhances the story. I like how he uses animation to remind us of all those inanimate tools and objects, and still photos to show who is speaking. The photos fit right into his animation style and give identity and immediacy to the comments.
The animation and text on screen keep us locked on Charlie’s effort to decode the meaning of all those piles of stuff. And just when you feel there’s little to be revealed in those tools, videos and artifacts, the film takes a turn to explore the story of abuse meted out from one generation to the next. After starting with his father’s illness and death and carrying it back to his dad’s boyhood, Charlie looks to his dad’s mother and her childhood to find the key that helps unlock the mystery of the man.
photo by Jen Fairchild, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Charlie: “I spent a year getting to know my dad in an unusual way. I was learning about his life and the things he did not have time to tell me. I learned to have empathy for a complex man whom I was rather hard on when I was younger.”
Choice or Destiny?
What shapes us? We all make personal choices that define who we are and how we respond to the people close to us. And there’s a strong legacy of personality and behavior that’s handed down from one generation to the next.
My mother liked to say, “wait until you have children of your own, then you’ll understand,” as a way of explaining her decisions and actions. She’s right, it’s difficult to see your parents as they see themselves or understand the choices they make. While we may gain perspective as we mature, our early perceptions can limit our ability to discover a deeper sense of who they are.
photo by by Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images
Charlie: “I thought talking about my dad and his life would be cathartic for me. We never expected it to be broadly received, but strangers are emailing me about the similarities, so it has gotten some traction and it’s a story that people relate to. My grandma came from the generation where you have this abuse/trauma you don’t talk about it. My dad had that as well, but it was at least acknowledged it, and it didn’t continue.”
Charlie’s video does a good job bridging that divide between seeing our parents as locked in orbit around us and understanding how their trajectories impact our own.
There’s a NYT commentary about the making of Charlie’s film you can see here.
If you like Charlie’s quirky filmmaking style, you can check out an earlier film on a completely different subject here.
So what do you think? Does the video work for you? How did you respond to Charlie’s approach to telling his father’s story? Leave a comment and let me know.