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What happens when a director's camera is pointed at their own families?

Director Bing Liu (center) with his mother and step brother.
Bob Bolen
Director Bing Liu (center) with his mother and step brother.

Updated February 22, 2023 at 8:59 PM ET

The streaming boom has ushered in a new era for documentaries, in which films about celebrities and murders are popular. Some celebrity docs are produced by the daughters of famous parents, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Robert Gottlieb, the legendary book editor.

Some are puff pieces, according to Sonya Childress, a member of the Documentary Accountability Working Group, which has developed a code of ethics for non-fiction films.

"You can have a child of a famous person turn a very loving gaze on their parent as a way to really honor their contribution to society. And you can also have someone who picks up a camera and be open to a complex and nuanced portrayal of someone they know and love," said Childress.

Examples of the latter, she said, are Last Flight Home, where the director chronicles her terminally ill father's assisted suicide, and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which two daughters made of the famous criminal defense lawyer.

Emily and Sarah Kunstler wanted all of their father's clients to be innocent and his headline-grabbing legal battles to be about justice and freedom. But the firebrand attorney defended some who were guilty of heinous crimes, including El Sayyid Nosair, the Egyptian- American whose 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane is considered the first act of Islamic terrorism on American soil, and Colin Ferguson, the gunman who killed six people on a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993. The train shooting was not mentioned in the daughters' documentary.

William Kunstler with daughters Sarah and Emily.
/ Maddy Miller
Maddy Miller
William Kunstler with daughters Sarah and Emily.

"There were people that weren't going to speak to us because we were his daughters, so we weren't going to get the full other side of the picture," said Emily Kunstler. "The people who had really antagonistic relationships with our father... they weren't necessarily going to want to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with us."

Kunstler called the interview with her mother one of the most challenging in the documentary. Although the sisters didn't share their questions with interviewees before filming them, they decided to send their questions for their mother to her best friend before the interview.

The Documentary Accountability Working Group doesn't have ethical guidelines focused explicitly on films made about the family of a director. But Childress says it advises directors to be transparent about their intentions and to "acknowledge their positional power, both in their families and as... interpreters of an experience."

New York director David Siev intended to make a kind of love letter to his hometown, Bad Axe, Michigan. His Mexican-American mother and Cambodian refugee father created their slice of the American dream by building a successful restaurant there. At the start of the pandemic, Siev moved home. After he and his sisters attended a Black Lives Matter protest in the small, predominantly white town, the threatening social media posts and phone calls began. Locals were furious when the trailer for his film Bad Axe dropped and some customers refused to wear masks.

One phone caller told his mother she was digging her own grave.

In that scene, Siev's mother, Rachel, criticizes her son as an outsider, saying, "You don't live here. You have no clue."

Siev told NPR that things almost got to the point where his family asked him to stop making the documentary.

"I needed everyone in the family on board and allow me to share our story," the director said. "That's why it was so important for me to collaborate with my family and to keep my family involved every step of the process of making this documentary."

The process involved discussing what scenes to include or exclude from the film. It was a process that director Bing Liu also employed when he made his film, Minding the Gap. But for Liu, the feedback on the editing came not from his family but from the psychotherapist he started seeing while making the documentary.

Minding the Gap initially focused on two skateboarders in Liu's hometown of Rockford, Ill. But to get one of the subjects to respond to his girlfriend's allegation of physical abuse, Liu shared his own story, which includes a claim that his stepfather beat him. During a two-hour interview with his mother, the director told her that he was beaten by his stepfather the first time they were alone together.

"I don't know what to say now," Liu's mother replies. "I wish I could go over and do again, do [it] differently. But it's all past. I wish I was stronger."

Liu struggled when he tried to pull footage from the interview with his mother and realized he needed someone not emotionally involved in the story. So, he turned to his video editor.

"When I was editing by myself, I was not hard on myself in that interview," he recalled. "I was not hard on my mom or me. I didn't allow myself to see that I was actually confronting my mom until this really brilliant editor, Josh Altman, came in and allowed me to see it."

Liu said he'd noticed an uptick in films where directors confront their parents. Among them, he said, are Liquor Store Dreams, No Crime In Sin and Eat Your Catfish. He sees these films as part of a movement to decolonize documentaries by putting the storytelling in the hands of the people who are part of the story.

Edited by: Ciera Crawford

Audio story produced by: Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Audio story edited by: Ciera Crawford

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 21, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story identified Director Bing Liu with his mother and stepbrother. In fact, the man pictured is Bing Liu's half-brother.
Jon Kalish
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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