A Holy Family
[…] The strength of Lu’s filmmaking manifests in the effortlessness with which he moves us through difficult topics, both personal and shared.
[…] His filmmaking reiterates how documentaries about one’s family have become an intimate, transformative “process” for the filmmaker, rather than made for an audience.
Text: Jodie McNeilly
Elvis A-Liang Lu follows his sallow-faced parents around as they near their death in his endearing family portrait A Holy Family. When asked by his father «why are we the subject of your film? » he answers «because I want to understand my contradictions». What we witness during these seasons of tomato crops and the growth of his father’s glandular cancer is the prodigal return of a son, finally open to the beliefs and idiosyncrasies that urge a boy to flee his home to the anonymity of the big smoke.
The film functions as an interrogation of Lu’s own disbelief in the power of the pantheon of gods that occupy an entire room (the best room) of his parents’ apartment, the many schemes of his brother to earn a living and the superstition that riddles their every decision. What are taken as points of anthropological, almost detached departure, slowly gain a sense of sincerity if not sympathy for these lives that simply live themselves. As his mother, brother and father open up to the camera – to him – Lu finds interest in gathering moments of the mundane: cleaning, cooking, hanging up washing, placing bets, planting, picking, sorting crops and constantly praying.
Foreknowledge of the gods, the “what will happen?” is critical for understanding their existence, both future and past. Lu’s family mediate difficult choices and understand tragedy through quiet dialogue with the gods, thus foregoing any hope of an incompatible free-will not steered by divine determinations. Their piety is intergenerational. Lu’s young nephew pleads tearfully with Lu’s brother to ask the gods when it will be safe to sow their crop of tomatoes. Lu’s father watches for the winning number in smoke rings that rise up from burning sticks of incense. A few lucky wins in the past has his mother, who detests his father’s gambling, avow the bet if it is placed on the basis of a divine sign.
Scenes of his mother expressing regret over her marriage (livelihoods lost to her husband’s gambling), mothering (a son she did not care to see again) and a life destroyed through endless paid and unpaid toil are tempered with scenes of comic relief. His father loiters and shuffles along hallways like a Samuel Beckett character, scrounging for something to eat or a few dollars to place his next bet. The strength of Lu’s filmmaking manifests in the effortlessness with which he moves us through difficult topics, both personal and shared: despairing a life not one’s own, loss, lack of security, cancer diagnosis and death. He manages this by filming them just being present, called to the truth of their lives.
A Holy Family makes me reflect upon films made about one’s parents. It is a prevalent subject for documentary artists with a desire to either better understand that which is closest to them, but also farthest away (My Old Man, 2022), to say goodbye (The Death of Cinema and My Father Too, 2021), or to mythologise (The Disappearance of My Mother, 2019). The quality, rhythm, tempo and overall dramaturgy of these films can never be more than their family’s behaviour, dynamics and self-disclosure. Each film is inevitably unique.
In the closing scene, Lu takes his mother to see the ocean for the first time; the film emancipates her from a life which knew and respected its boundaries. His filmmaking reiterates how documentaries about one’s family have become an intimate, transformative “process” for the filmmaker, rather than made for an audience. While this in no way detracts from any receptive investment or enjoyment of A Holy Family, such family portraits become so deeply personal in their aesthetically crafted form that a suspension of disbelief is automatically engaged as we attach ourselves to characters and are no longer observers. What has happened to the real in real? Any answer is profoundly obfuscated by this astute creation of Lu’s.
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Screenings at the Festival Black Movie Genève 2024
A Holy Family | Film | Elvis A-Liang Lu | TWN-FR 2022 | 90’ | Visions du Réel Nyon 2022, Black Movie Genève 2024
First published: May 05, 2022