Directed by #MoScarpelli
Film review by Nathanial Eker
Film, more than any other medium has an interesting way of blending reality and fiction; documentaries even more-so. Though they offer the tantalising opportunity to peek behind the lens, questions are inevitably raised. Where does the filmmaker’s allegiance lie? What did they neglect to include in the all-essential edit? And did she really feed her husband to those tigers? Director Mo Scarpelli’s El Father Plays Himself intensifies this disconnect, as we are forced behind a lens behind another lens. What this film-about-a-film reveals both disturbs and compels, culminating in what is either an unflinching character study, or tiresome video diary of an ill man. Or alternatively, a bit of both.
Director Jorge Thielen Armand reconnects with his alcoholic father Hedderich, by taking him back to his roots in the Amazon jungle to shoot a biopic; La Fortaleza. As the picture is based on his past, Hedderich portrays himself in brutally honest detail. What follows is a plagued production that blurs the lines between acting and exploitation.
The most striking thing about El Father Plays Himself is its use of cinematic misdirection. Shooting with what I imagine to be a 25mm lens from a variety of filmic angles, the fluid and considered cinematography of this documentary immediately calls its authenticity into question. While Armand’s film is undoubtedly a scripted work of fiction, what about Mo Scarpelli’s? This questioning intent irreparably reframes the viewing process; as a work of fiction, it’s a dark comedy of errors. However, as a portrait of real events, El Father Plays Himself takes on an insidious hue.
Hedderich is clearly a deeply affected man. We see it consistently; his repressed anger and pained loss expose themselves even when he’s sober. When asked how his son behaved as a child, he responds with little more than assumptions and one-liners. It’s after a bottle or two of rum, however, that the extent of his ire manifests. Expletives are shouted, punches are thrown, tears are shed; it’s often difficult to watch this man break down so completely.
It’s this aspect of the documentary that makes it both challenging and open to be challenged. The premise of a behind the scenes look at a troubled production is nothing new in works of documentary (Peter Jackson’s King Kong production diaries) or mockumentary (Mutant Swinger from Mars et al). However, much like in Shirley Clarke’s deeply problematic Portrait of Jason, the fuelling of addiction for the sake of art (or commercial attention) is a markedly devious and deplorable act.
As a study of a problematic film set, El Father Plays Himself is wonderfully crafted. Tableaus of Hedderich’s conflicted expressions characterise a mise-en-scené that focuses so intrinsically on its lead, that it almost eclipses the stunning Amazon backdrop. Scarpelli employs cunning editing and cinematography to craft three realms of existence; that of the past, the present, and the fantasy. The first is achieved through heart-breaking family videos, the second through present events, and the fantasy through the supposed semi-real content of La Fortaleza. Scarpelli cleverly blends footage from the two latter realms, blurring the lines of fact and fiction, and therefore disallowing the audience to fully draw a conclusive opinion of Armand and Hedderich.
El Father Plays Himself is a fascinating study of the extent to which filmic truth can be pushed. By blurring reality, Scarpelli crafts a thoughtful piece that ultimately bestows the viewer a sense of solemn judgement; one that forces us to voice our thoughts, yet never so vocally that we might look foolish, should a scene turn out to be one of satirical vice, clever camera work, and simply a very talented actor.
Though it might never become clear exactly what percentage of the film is a pre-calculated trick at the audience’s expense, El Father Plays Himself is certain to upset and unsettle as much as it will inspire debate.