Different Kinds of Family

in 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Kirsten Kieninger

An old married couple living in a huge estate in Mexico; two middle-aged gay men occupying a small house in New Orleans. Carefully composed, observational images; a handheld camera right in the middle of events. Very different in their choices of protagonists and style, both Parts of a Family (Partes de una Familia) (International Critics’ Prize for best international documentary) and They Glow in the Dark (International Critics’ Prize for best Greek documentary) share a common theme: love and evanescence.

They live in the same house, but they don’t share their lives. In 50 years of marriage Gonzalo and Gina have grown apart. Love has turned into indifference and aversion. Their house is the scene of a cold war with two wounded victims who have retreated to their trenches. With his feature documentary Parts of a Family Mexican filmmaker Diego Gutiérrez created a poignant study of the checkmate situation in which his parents have become entangled. This situation can be encountered in many homes where there are long-term relationships, but rarely does it present itself as cinematically as in the Gutiérrez house.

The huge, walled-off family estate near Mexico City provides the perfect setting: austere, repelling facades, barred windows, a house and garden being sealed off from the environment by high walls surrounding the 4,000m² estate. In the film this location resembles an experimental set-up in which two subjects move to a choreography that has been established over the years. If Parts of a Family was a feature film, the director’s name would be Michael Haneke: there is a sober and almost dissecting quality in the way Diego Gutierrez observes the behavior of his parents, with the camera being static most of the time and every shot framing well-calculated. Because the parents are avoiding each other they are rarely to be found together in the same spot (and camera-frame) at the same time. Cinematic form and content are combined in a perfect way in Parts of a Family.

The filming son remains off-screen, but once in a while he becomes present on the soundtrack questioning his parents as he’s trying to figure out what went wrong in their relationship — for Gonzalo and Gina once got married head over heels. Since then Gonzalo has built a distinguished career as a doctor, while Gina has taken care of the house and their children (with the assistance of nannies and servants). Now that the kids have grown up and left to live their own lives, the two parents remain engaged in their static warfare. Gonzalo mainly looks after himself, writes a novel and plans to celebrate his 80th birthday by skydiving. Gina feels misunderstood, hurt and frustrated. She hardly dares to leave the estate, which has become a prison to her.

Parts of a Family does not only tell a very personal, intimate story about a relationship without ever being voyeuristic. It also achieves — not least as a result of its form — an almost symbolic representation of a state of alienation between two people who once loved each other.

Jim and Mikal never fell for each other, they only had a fling decades ago. Now they have reunited in a partnership of purpose. Both men are in their fifties and HIV-positive. “All that we know is dead,” Jim laconically states to justify why after 20 years of silence he and Mikal got it together and moved to post-Katrina New Orleans. Greek filmmaker Panayotis Evangelidis spent a month with them to portray their situation and tell their story. The title of his documentary They Glow in the Dark relates to the small, handcrafted voodoo figurines which Jim and Mikal sell on the market: some are painted with fluorescent colors. In a figurative sense the title also describes the film’s unconventional and likeable protagonists. Their optimism may be laced with a heavy dose of sarcasm, but their courage to face life in defiance of all obstructions is admirable.

They struggle with the severe side-effects of the drugs they have to take. Jim’s body has become haggard from the medication, while Mikal suffers from strong nerve pain in his hands and legs and is drawing on a disability pension. Money is tight; they do what they can to keep afloat. They act as an endearing oddball couple, with each of them inhabiting his own floor. None of them means the love of his life to the other. But both have experienced such a big love once.

Although They Glow in the Dark is rooted right in the here and now, the film opens towards the past and future. While the two are struggling through their daily lives in the sultry heat of New Orleans, with their wiry bodies dressed in tank tops, the film reveals more and more of their past lives. Jim was once a well-built pin-up boy, while Mikal spent his teenage years as a streetwalker who took advantage of his good looks. Back in those days he met his big love Adam, and is now regretting that he quickly lost sight of him then. Jim lost his great love to AIDS after an 11-year relationship. Both Mikal and Jim are yearning for true love, but at the same time they appreciate what they’ve got, struggling together and sharing their lives.

It’s not the images (captured by director Panayotis Evangelidis himself in a rather gritty cinematical style) but the story that shines out through them which makes They Glow in the Dark  such a remarkable film. The partnership of Jim and Mikal might appear particular at first sight, but in the end, in a highly touching yet entertaining way, the film tells a very multi-layered story which examines universal themes like friendship, illness, poverty, intimacy, mortality, companionship, and ultimately love.

Edited by Carmen Gray