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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: Documentaries Are the New Therapy

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So you are all grown up but still get agitated every time you see your parents. They never were really there for you -- even if they brought pleasure to millions of others. Or maybe you realize it's about time you learned more about a grandparent whom you never really appreciated. Get thee to an analyst? Maybe. Or better yet, pick up a camera.

At the Sundance Film Festival this month, the most anticipated documentary was Ethel, about Ethel Kennedy, the matriarch of the Robert Kennedy clan, directed by her daughter, Rory Kennedy. It joins a growing list of personal passion projects made by filmmakers recently: Decoding Deepak, which has just been announced for the South by Southwest Festival, sees director Gotham Chopra examining his famous father; The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, by Carl Colby about his father, former CIA chief William Colby; Sing Your Song, co-produced by Gina Belafonte about the life of her father, Harry Belafonte, on and off the stage; Mr. Conservative, which is granddaughter CC's take on Barry Goldwater; My Architect, son Nathaniel's compelling story of his father, Louis Kahn; 51 Birch Street, by Doug Block, which plays like an onion peeling before your eyes as he discovers deeper and deeper family secrets; and Disturbing the Universe, about left-wing attorney William Kunstler, chronicled by daughters Emily and Sarah.

To some, these may feel like the ultimate in narcissism. On the other hand, virtually all the great works of theater, in my opinion, are autobiographical. And the bestseller lists are filled with memoirs. Still, the documentarians acknowledge that they walk some very fine lines: how to make their own personal families compelling to a wide range of viewers, and how to tell the stories of loved ones, warts and all.

Sascha Rice spent the last four years working on California State of Mind, a documentary about her grandfather, the ebullient former Governor Pat Brown. While the film was a way to connect to her grandfather, she knew that "as a filmmaker and artist, I needed to tell a story, to find the conflict," she told me. "That meant if there were skeletons, I needed to expose them." While she had a strong relationship with the man whose career ended when he lost to "newcomer" Ronald Reagan -- "he always made me feel like I mattered" -- she admits that the decision to tell his story may have been motivated by guilt. "I guess I sort of felt I let him down," she says, "because I didn't go into the business of politics. So this was a way to do my part in keeping his legacy alive."

For these filmmakers, their cinematic journeys are almost always filled with illuminations. "I learned that he was in Palm Springs with Frank Sinatra one weekend to dodge the farm workers boycott," Ms. Rice laughs. CC Goldwater says creating Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater was like digging through a maze:

I thought I knew him pretty well, but in the discovery, I was amazed at all he had accomplished. He was a profound politician but also a master photographer, an experienced aviator, and an honest man with true convictions. Ultimately, it gave me the opportunity to see an icon through the eyes of others while having the personal roots to pull from.

51 Birch Street started out as a friendly handheld story of Mr. Block's parents' long marriage, more along the lines of the family video to pass on to the following generations. But then his mother died, a long term affair was uncovered, and there were revelatory diaries and letters left behind. "That is when I realized I was meant to make the film," says Mr. Block, who warned his father that he might be seen as "the bad guy early on, but that he would ultimately be seen as far more complicated. When it came out, he was suddenly treated like a little rock star." A film like his was a true challenge in that it deals with the unfamous. Here, the secret ingredient is resonance. "Truly, I had no idea why anyone would care," says Mr. Block. "But boy, did it resonate," he told me.

As for those younger relatives chronicling famed family members, the trick is to give us something we don't already know while still making the subject relatable. You may have thought you knew Harry Belafonte from his Day-O days, but "Sing Your Song" -- which should be required viewing for every history class -- gives us a far more complex portrait. Gina Belafonte says the project really began as her own exploration of the civil rights movement.

"As an activist myself, I felt my generation was not coordinated and I wanted answers -- being the recipient of all that hard work," she says. Like Ms. Rice, she wanted to be sure the legacy was appreciated. "I worried that my soon to be 7-year-old child would never know the depth of his grandfather's contribution." While some feel the film may be too reverential, the viewer is left appreciating how Gina and her siblings often felt slighted by their father's constant absences. Parental neglect is a recurring theme of the personal docs.

While screen storytelling may be the new shrink, movie memoirists beware: this is not for the faint of heart. Selling documentaries (unless you are Michael Moore) is never a cakewalk, and convincing investors that you are going to tell an honest and revealing (not to mention commercial) tale about a family member may be even tougher. "I had countless pitch meetings," says Ms. Goldwater. "It seemed if there were no sex, drugs, or scandal, there would be no interest. I began to think I was nuts," she confided to me. (HBO finally partnered with her.)

While the documentarians don't exactly buy into the camera-as-couch theory, they don't deny the guilt-reducing and cathartic personal results. "So much has happened in the making of our film," says Ms. Belafonte of the process. "My dad and I got through many struggles on the project together, and we are now very very close." Still, as summed up by Doug Block, "Obviously, I am trying to get through some issues. But believe me, therapy is cheaper."