My Flesh and Blood

(Jonathan Karsh, USA, 2003)


2004 was hailed by many as the 'year of the documentary', since more films of this type than ever before were seen in cinemas. But the rise in audience interest has not been matched by a sharpening of critical sophistication.

As has always been the case, documentaries are judged primarily on their content – as if the films merely provide a transparent window onto true events.

The discussion of documentary routinely gets bogged down in tired old furphies. Is the film balanced, biased, objective? Has the filmmaker intervened too much?

The crucial dimension that is so often missed in documentary is one that we take for granted in evaluating fiction films: namely, the complex, often murky psychical investment that a filmmaker makes in his or her own choice of material.

These thoughts came to me while watching an absorbing but troubling new doco, Jonathan Karsh's My Flesh and Blood. If viewed transparently, it is a heartfelt record of a courageous woman, Susan Tom, who has devoted her life to her eleven adopted children – most of whom have serious disabilities.

Filmed with startling intimacy over a period of a year, it is presented as a chronicle of triumph over adversity and a rite of passage.

But I am always suspicious of documentary filmmakers who present their work in terms of a "story that begged to be told" – as if they were merely the medium through which this true story can reach the world.

Shot in a cinéma-vérité, observational style, My Flesh and Blood is content to ask few questions. Issues of Susan's unhappy past and her penchant for styling herself as a kind of secular saint are raised but quickly smudged over in Karsh's race to locate sentimental redemption.

Most disturbing of all is the film's shamelessly sensational treatment of fifteen-year-old Joe, a sufferer of Cystic Fibrosis who is consumed with violent rage. The film positions him as a kind of scapegoat figure, a threat to the family's solidarity.

There are doubtless some viewers who will find this film genuinely uplifting. I found it manipulative and exploitative in ways it seems determined never to recognise or acknowledge.

© Adrian Martin October 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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