Father Unknown is an impressive and haunting film that captures the very real pain felt by a grown man, in his senior years, seeking to fill the void left by the blank space on his birth certificate where his father’s name should be.
Father Unknown, which how a mother’s shame casts a shadow of silence and toxic secrets get passed from generation to generation, has been described in glowing terms: “deeply moving,” “beautiful,” “powerful,” “courageous, honest, unforgettable,” “compelling,” “amazing.”
It is incredible that such well-deserved praise is being extolled upon a film that is not only the filmmaker’s first feature-length motion picture, but was shot on his smartphone with the intent of documenting a personal family journey to truth, not making a motion picture that would be hailed by audiences.
Filmmaker David Quint’s bio reveals that the 46-year-old discovered his passion for storytelling as a young boy growing up in Western Colorado and has since gone on to work professionally as a director, cinematographer and aerial cameraman filming feature films, documentaries, commercials projects for Netflix, MTV, NBC, ABC, CBS and numerous other Networks. Never did he imagine, however, that he would make such a personal film.
The “actors” are real, their tears, their fears, anxieties and agony unrehearsed and unleashed in full view as they travel back in time and across the ocean to a castle in Switzerland seeking to find the missing puzzle pieces of a father’s mysterious childhood.
David’s father, Urban, arrived alone in America unable to speak English, at the age of 12. He was introduced to a woman who said she was his mother a man he was told was his step father, and the first 12 years of his life were never ever spoken of again.
I had the opportunity to speak with the filmmaker and he told me:
“It was like he ‘hatched’ as 12-year-old in Philadelphia.”
The silence went with Urban into his marriage and David grew up with under the same shroud of quietude. No one ever said the word orphanage. His father never talked about his childhood, except in little bits and pieces that led David to understand that the “castle” his father spoke of, was in fact an orphanage. But how could Urban have been an “orphan” when David knew his father’s mother?
The pivotal point in the father son journey occurs when Urban awakens from a nightmare crying and is totally – and frighteningly - dissociated with reality after being confronted with the sights and smells and memories from his childhood. He was crying over his childhood friend but it was the first time, David realizes, that his father ever allowed himself or was given permission to feel sad and mourn his losses.
That night, David tells me, was the beginning of his Dad’s two worlds that he had carried inside of him – and compartmentalized for so long – colliding and then subsequently starting to integrate. Urban and David have since learned that many adoptees feel split in half having what has been called a “Ghost Kingdom” they carry inside.
Vividly exposed in its raw and bare naked truth is the exploration for answers that torment not just Urban, a 67-year old husband and father, but we are also privy to the ripple effects of deep seated familial secrets. Secrets of illicit love and his mother’s refusal to unlock the past.
Recently, years after their trip to Switzerland, Urban told David that he continues to realize the impact that my childhood had on me.”
Suzanne Handler, MEd, author of author of The Secrets They Kept, writes that keeping secrets can destroy relationships, effect children, cause suspicions and resentment, create a false sense of reality, and cause illness. She notes that:
“…traumatic, painful, or life-changing secrets potentially can damage an entire family’s mental health and well-being for some time.”
David tells me in a telephone interview that and his father had a “distant” relationship for as long as he can remember.
“I was very angry about our relationship and this emptiness I had carried inside for as long as I can remember…..I felt strongly that the disconnect I felt as a kid was related to whatever happened to him as a child that we never talked about.
“I didn’t understand the impact it had on me and how much shame I carried for something that really had nothing to with me and really when you think about it the shame my father carried that had nothing to with him. And we’ll never know, but the shame his mother carried…”
Via follow-up email he tells me:
“[His father] was strict and often became cold and distant when he became angry. He had a short temper with me at times and it felt overwhelming. … It was hard to talk to him…. I needed a father that could teach me about how to face the challenges I faced growing up ... At some point along the way [like] many children in similar situation… I concluded that … there must be something wrong with me; that I … didn’t deserve the warmth and connection for which I was so hungry.
“I don’t think this conclusion was even conscious. It happened over time. And there was no one there to undo it, or suggest that there might be other reasons for the way my father was with me. This is why I’ve come to feel so strongly about the need for emotional openness and the importance of talking about difficult subjects within families.
“I think the distance and emptiness I felt as a child is the reason that I fell in love with films. I had a rich inner world of fantasy and ideas that I would often go to try to escape the intensity my feelings in reality.”
As a child, David spent hours in darkened movie theaters and one summer, he and his best friend were given access to video camera. The two spent endless hours outside filming epic cinematic masterpieces with GI Joe action figures, lighter fluid and matches.
In “The Power of Secrets” in Psychology Today, Evan Imber-Black writes:
There's no question that family secrets are destructive…. They divide people. They deter new relationships. And they freeze the development on individuals.
David now sees that the pain he experienced as a result of the void in his father’s life impacted many interpersonal relationships, including two divorces:
“I think that the partners I chose, had an emptiness too as a result of their own childhood trauma. Like magnets being attracted to each other. My first marriage was to an adoptee. At the time, I didn’t see any significance to this at all. All I knew is that she somehow felt ‘familiar’.”
In fact, David did not even know the word “adoptee” until after showings of Father Unknown brought him into contact with the adoption community. Although neither of them were adopted, David and Urban are currently members of Adoptees in Search in Denver, where David has become an activist for the rights of adopted persons to access their original birth certificates. His insights and openness combined with his ability to articulate them is extraordinary.
“Now with much more hindsight, I see that I have struggled to remain connected to other people when I felt scared, angry, sad, or dismissed. I learned early on that I would just “take care of myself” and I became an expert at stuffing feelings and disassociating from pain. I now understand that what I learned early on, continued into my adult relationships.”
He also believes his “struggle with relationships has impacted” his three children who have been through two family breakups.
“In some ways, you could say the cycle continued and in other ways it has been broken: I have tried to be open with my kids about the forces that have impacted our family. This conversation hasn’t been easy but I think it is so very important to break the cycle and allow for the healing of the past and the future.”
Despite the inter-generational harm of loss, societal shame, and secrets…adoption is still promoted and single moms are still told it is a “brave”, “unselfish” and “loving” choice, when in fact the bravest thing any mother – or father - can do is fight to keep their baby despite the difficulties.
Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor, authored Lethal Secrets in an attempt to prevent the perpetuation of family lies and secrets in reproductive technologies. The book description says:
Breaking the bonds of silence and ending secrecy is necessary, the authors believe, to address the inherent psychological problems. As the world continues headlong down the road of high-tech procedures and methodologies, there is a need to maintain a strong sense of importance of the human element and historical, genetic connections.
At the Father Unknown website you can view the trailer, find out about screenings and purchase the DVD. I recommend you do! If you liked Lion (or heard good things about it) and if you’re a fan of This is Us, you’ll love this film.