51 Birch Street is a film I never set out to make. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to delve into some of the most personal aspects of their parents’ relationship, much less reveal it for public consumption?
This was the farthest thing from my mind two years ago when I went to visit our suburban family home for the last time. I did bring my digital camcorder with me, but it was just to capture the house I grew up in one last time for posterity. Or so I thought.
A lot had happened in the past year: my mother, who I was very close to, had died without much warning, and three months later my father, who I was not so close to, had moved in with his secretary from 40 years ago. They quickly married, sold the house, and now were about to leave the area for good. It was all pretty shocking in its suddenness, but I was philosophical about it. Dad’s 83 and, well, good for him, he’s moving forward, life marches on, and all that.
Then I walked inside and saw our entire family history being packed away in boxes and it all hit me like a punch in the stomach: although I hadn’t lived there in over 30 years, on some very primal level I still thought of this place as my home.
It soon became apparent that my father, who never talks about himself, was not just willing but was eager to talk. And that my camera was facilitating the conversation by allowing me to ask the difficult questions I could never have asked otherwise. I saw a unique opportunity to get to know my father better, so I decided to keep coming back.
It was during my next visit that I asked my Dad, offhandedly, if he missed Mom. “No,” he replied. “It wasn’t a loving association, just a functioning one.” Since I had always thought my parent’s 54-year marriage was a pretty good one, needless to say I was stunned.
I started to review the many hours of verité footage and interviews I’d shot with my parents over the years. I had done it originally just for my sisters and I to have as records of our family history, but now I was looking at it from a very different viewpoint. I also poured over the thousands of photos and slides my father, a photo hobbyist, had taken over the years, as well as a number of rolls of 8mm home movies he shot back in the early 50’s.
It suddenly began to feel like telling my parents’ story on film was pre-destined.
But then there were the boxes filled with my mother’s diaries. I wrestled for a long time whether to even read them, and even longer over whether to include them in the film. Later, during the many months of editing, I struggled with how to show them on screen. My mother was a very complicated person. Trying to pick just the right words and phrases to do her justice, yet not overstep the bounds of propriety, was an enormous responsibility.
Along the way, a number of people asked if the film was therapy for me. Not really, I’d say. Therapy is where you go once a week for about 45 minutes and it costs maybe a hundred bucks a pop. During the two years of making 51 Birch Street, I thought about my parents all day long. I thought about them while lying in bed at night. They invaded my dreams. And let’s not even talk about the cost of a feature documentary.
Ultimately, though, it’s been a priceless experience. To be able to understand my parents better; to be able to pay tribute to them as fallible human beings who did the best they could; to get so much closer to my father; to gain closure with my past… This wasn’t an easy film to make, by any means, but I feel very blessed to have been given the opportunity.
My greatest hope with 51 Birch Street is that it resonates universally – that audiences across all cultures will see themselves and their own relationships with their parents in it. And that maybe, it will inspire them to reach out and talk with their parents.
Not that it will necessarily resolve things. As the film strongly suggests, we never really resolve things with our parents. But if we’re lucky, we get the chance to make peace with them before it’s too late.
Like I said, 51 Birch Street is a film I never set out to make. But, looking back on it, I guess it’s the film I was born to make.