Lynne Sachs’ documentary “Film About a Father Who” circles around a hole. Her father Ira is now 84, and she’s old enough to be the mother of an adult daughter. But one can tell that she still doesn’t fully understand him. That’s the reason why she made this film, which follows the messiness of a man whose idea of freedom consisted of running from one short-term fling to the next with no regard for the fact that he kept fathering children.
“Film About a Father Who” incorporates footage newly shot by Sachs for the documentary, as well as home movies dating back as early as 1965 and material shot by her father and her brother, the accomplished, out gay director Ira Sachs, Jr. Almost every possible video format is credited, as well as 8mm and 16mm film. The result is a hodgepodge of textures and styles. To add to the mélange, Sachs often plays audio of people whose voices we can’t place on top of unrelated images. While the film begins with promotional video made by Ira Sr. in Park City, Utah in 1992, it spans his entire adult life. Ira, Jr. fictionalized aspects of his father’s life in his 2005 film “Forty Shades of Blue.” Lynne nursed this project for 30 years, then decided to complete it by recording a voice-over in January 2019.
Sachs refuses to pass judgment on a man who was neglectful and selfish. The film’s spectators probably won’t be so reluctant. Ira, Sr. never should’ve had children or agreed to participate in a monogamous relationship, although his lifestyle as “the Hugh Hefner of Park City” probably made the former inevitable. (Without using the word “vasectomy,” his mother tells him he should get one.) But while his appearances on screen don’t lead to any epiphanies about the sources of his behavior, Sachs is equally interested in the experiences of her siblings, who are better equipped to explain their lives.
She brings the whole family together to film a discussion on this subject. The class and racial differences of her siblings are apparent. While she’s white and Jewish, some of her siblings are of different races. In the end, he fathered nine children by six women, but concealed two because his mother threatened to cut him out of her will if he kept having kids. One woman contrasts her life of hunger and poverty with the middle class lives of Lynne and Ira, Jr.
While she doesn’t emphasize this part of her father’s personality or her own work, she’s best known for the anti-war films she made in the 2000s. She may have been influenced by Ira, Sr.’s “life-long interest in doing good in the world,” as she describes it in the press kit. Very early on, “Film About A Father Who” describes him as a “hippie businessman, using other people’s money to develop hotels named after flowers,” and mentions his resistance to defining himself by his job. But Ira, Sr. remains bound to a ‘60s idea of masculinity – he even looks like David Crosby today – that viewed women and children as impediments to his freedom.
Sachs is also receiving a five-program retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image starting Jan. 13th. It’s not complete, focusing on her family-themed work rather than her more political fare. But obviously that makes a fitting context for “Film About a Father Who.” She films children with a tenderness that seems to have been lacking from her own youth. She’s made three shorts reworking the same images of her daughter, Maya, as well as a depiction of her niece and nephew in the 2015 “Viva and Felix Growing Up.”
In Sachs’ most recent film, the four-minute short “Maya at 24,” she edits together film of her daughter at 6, 16, and 24. “Maya at 24” suggests that change is the only constant in life. It’s based around the image of Maya running in a clockwise circle as Sachs pans the camera to keep up with her. “Maya at 24” also uses superimposition to place earlier versions of the woman inside her head. While not exactly a subtle film, it suggests something real about the way we carry our pasts inside us as we race towards an uncertain future. “Film About a Woman Who” expands that notion on a grander scale, with a nagging sense that Sachs is searching for emotions she never received as a child and her entire family wants answers from Ira Sr. while he’s still alive. They don’t seem likely to be forthcoming.
FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO | Directed by Lynne Sachs | The Cinema Guild | Starts streaming through the Museum of the Moving Image Jan. 15