A Stunning Documentary Meditation On Family History, Secrets, Truth and more...
I would highly recommend FAMILY NAME if you can catch it - it still is unavailable on DVD or VHS (which is terribly unfortunate) - I would confess to having a bias (my last name being Alston), but it still stands out as a remarkable piece of documentary film-making.
Overall FAMILY NAME is a family-tree project on a grand, vast scale - an attempt at tracing the 'black' and 'white' sides of a family linked by an uncommon surname (Alston), resulting in a film both meticulous in its' detail, and hypnotic in it's unhurried artistry. Along the way, 'Family Name' also serves as a meditation on family secrets both racial and sexual, as Macky Alston is an out gay filmmaker, and also the product of a Southern Baptist family active in the struggle for racial equality in the American South. A bit like William Faulkner reimagined by Tsai Ming-liang, this documentary reveals its' secrets slowly, as Alston works elliptically around central North Carolina collecting interviews and personal histories, interspersing historical investigation and reportage as he locates the American point of origin of the name in Chatham County, just south of Durham and Chapel Hill, NC. Along the way Alstons both black and white, drawn from across the American economic spectrum flesh out bits of the story, showcasing (or adding context around) family notables like Romare Bearden (an Alston cousin who became a celebrated painter during the Harlem renaissance) in the process.
Alston - who is present, though usually off-camera - has a quiet, mildly cerebral dignity that underscores the meditative quality of the film, and his quiet suggestion that the reluctance in some family members to ponder the racial divide running through a family with a complex history is similar to the reluctance to reveal certain essential elements (like ones' sexual orientation), out of fear of rejection or offense. The suggestion is that the mindful revelation of (or at least refection upon) either represents a true route towards an enlightened view of one's own history and heritage. In this frame of mind, FAMILY NAME must also be singled out as one of the finest 'Southern' films I've ever seen - presenting individuals who embody a region facing a warts-and-all history, with a single minded determination to grow and move on, shattering a list of regional stereotypes even while drenched in the 'atmosphere' the region is famed and romanticized for.
My review might be a touch biased, but so be it. This is a great film, much deserving of a wider audience. Let's hope a home video release happens soon.
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