Friday, 13 December 2013

Briefly - My Flesh and Blood

This 2003 documentary follows a year in the life of the Susan Tom's family - a group including 11 adopted children with varying physical and emotional challenges, some very serious. As the film starts in the fall at Halloween and moves through to the following summer, the majority of screen time is spent on Joe, suffering from cystic fibrosis and a number of other factors leading to his ill temperament; Margaret, the oldest one around with no physical issues but displaying stress from the responsibilities assigned to her; Susan herself, a woman with low self esteem in regards to her appearance but with an unwavering determination to help those children rejected by their birth parents.

Undeniably, there are profound and moving moments in this film - you are looking at children without legs, burn victims and one youngster, Anthony, who's skin is literally falling off his body. And to say that Susan Tom comes through as a trooper who assumes responsibilities others would not is a hefty understatement. The film has won a slew of prizes (including an Audience Award at Sundance) and flies off the charts on the Tomato Meter at 90%. And yet...

At the end of this screening I found myself bothered by three matters. One is that director Johnathan Karsh's approach comes across at times as not only disrespectful (there a few scenes where the kids are more than candid in not wanting to be filmed at the moment) but intrusive to the point of bordering on exploitation. He seems to want the viewer to know his camera is having an effect on the matters at hand. In relation to this, while the children are more than genuine, scenes with some of the adults (like Joe's birth mother and new step father) ended up feeling like they were lifted out of some "reality" tv show. I've been on the other side of the camera in documentary shoots enough to note the way folks come across when they know they are being filmed and it's clear the participants are aware the recording devices are not off in the distance. Karsh also makes it a point to concentrate on the three most overtly dramatic characters of Joe, Margaret and, of course, Susan. Fair enough and understandable, except this seems to come at the expense of short shrifting the storylines of the other wonderful children, some whose lives are almost completely ignored. I know I'm in the minority on this one but while I acknowledge that this film is in many ways an important documentary, it just seems at times like an incomplete and unbalanced one.

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