It Runs in the Family review – heartfelt tribute from one film-maker to another

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There have been experimental, freestyling essay films and memoiristic documentaries around for years, going back to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil or Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. But just lately it feels like the sprawling poetic-realist subgenre is flourishing, especially in the sunny uplands of film festivals. Like an extension of the creative-writing exhortation to “write about what you know” young documentary-makers are increasingly shooting movies about not just who they are but also their family history. Sometimes family members are even corralled into play themselves or others, like some cinematic family drama-therapy experiment.

If you want a few recent examples, check out Miryam Charles’s recent Cette Maison, or Moroccan director Asmae el Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies, both of which recreate traumas from the directors’ family histories. Now add to that list this one, directed by Victoria Linares Villegas, a young Dominican film-maker who found out that her second cousin was Oscar Torres, a significant if now obscure film-maker who left the Dominican Republic not long after the military dictator Rafael Trujillo came to power in the 1930s, and then fled to Cuba to make leftist films celebrating the common man. Torres was also a film critic for a time, championing neo-realists such as Vittorio De Sica. Villegas sets to find and understand Oscar’s work, but also his more personal story – and about halfway through it emerges that he was bisexual, which resonates with Villegas, herself a lesbian.

Much like The Mother of All Lies, by the end Victoria has cajoled members of her own family, who have kept stumm for years about cousin Oscar, to perform readings/reenactments of his unwritten stage plays. These veer towards melodrama, but the artless underacting of the amateur performers rather sweetly undercuts the excess. Elsewhere, Victoria deploys painterly cutout animation and discontinuous editing, which serves to make the whole package feel even more dreamlike and offbeat. It’s nowhere near as strange and wild as Cette Maison, which is both a virtue and a flaw in some ways, but this is heartfelt, individual cinema with its own distinctive voice.

It Runs in the Family is at Bertha DocHouse, London, from 19 April

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