In both short and feature length versions of this strange little story, Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi) a lonely, isolated man pays an odd assortment of locals to impersonate the members of his family. He writes scripts for them to follow and then uses a video camera to record ‘family movies’. From his demands on these faux family members, we get a sense that there was an original family that is being replicated by these strangers but we never come to know where the real family has gone and why he is alone.
At the beginning of the film, we meet Ericka (Liudmyla Zamindra) who is being inducted into the role of Emerson’s sister but she is not yet quite a perfect fit (‘my sister would not wear a skirt so short’). The rest of the family have already been ‘cast’ – Mother (Larysa Hraminska), Father (Mykola Bozhko) and Brother (Maksym Derbenyov) and together they sit down to Christmas lunch.
The first half of the film very closely follows its short predecessor (it’s on Vimeo – Google it), albeit with a new cast and new location. But in the second half, the relationship between Emerson and Ericka changes quite dramatically on both a personal and fabricated level. As good as The Family is, it’s this extension of the original idea that makes A Family so powerful. Stevens approached this expansion of the original story with some very strong ideas that work well for the finished product. For a start, he chose to shoot the film in Ukraine (inspired by photographs his co-writer and cinematographer, Tom Swinburn had shown him of a recent trip there). This, along with the distinctly 90’s technology they use (which could simply be kinds of phones and computers and televisions available in Ukraine) creates an ‘otherness’ to the film. It’s shot in what seems to be a faded palette of earthy colours that somehow enhances the isolation, grief and loneliness we feel in Emerson and helps us to accept the improbability of the story. Working with actors who speak a language other than the language of the director is risky enough, but Stevens adds more levels of difficulty to this by casting mostly non-actors in the roles (Derbenyov’s day job is as a dentist and Zamidra is a receptionist).
Not only do the actors and director not speak the same language, they don’t even share a cinematic vocabulary with which they might communicate. This, of course, makes it hard to praise the performances as good acting, but these first timers do a pretty good job and the ‘amateurish’ feel actually builds a certain authenticity to the film as does the mundanity of the screenplay. The words spoken (as translated in subtitle) are awkward and perfunctory as befits the situation so it is up to the performances Stevens is able to draw from his actors and the remarkably evocative imagery and sympathetic lens of Swinburn’s cinematography to carry the narrative and between them they tell the story in perfect ‘film’ language.
I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary about this film that focuses on the European-ness of its filmmaking and it certainly has a European sensibility to it but, for me, it’s the Australian-ness that creates the balance and tempers the story allowing it to be more than a bleak and dour study of grief and loss to being something that also has the capacity to bring a smile to the audience’s faces. But don’t be mistaken; A Family never exceeds the comic to become comedic. Don’t expect a laugh anytime soon but do expect that this film might well leave you with a sense of hope and optimism for, whilst Emerson’s plan to manufacture a living memory of a lost family might allow him to assuage his grief without losing his isolation, it’s the redirecting of his absurd idea by Ericka that could well bring him back into the world. But, in the end, we don’t really know. This film is as much about what is not said, as it is about what the narrative tells us. And whilst that’s a pretty brave and risky way to make a film, in this case Jayden Stevens manages to pull it off.