11/04/12 - Chinese 6, 9:30 p.m.
11/07/12 - Chinese 2, 6:45 p.m.
By Andrew Johnson
FAMILY NIGHTMARE is just that: a surreal, terrifying look at familial dysfunction. Director Dustin Guy Defa’s short film — playing at the festival as part of SHORTS PROGRAM THREE — is comprised of old VHS clips of a Christmas gathering. It’s technically a documentary in that it’s a piece of home video, but it has more in common with the found-footage horror subgenre than traditional non-fiction storytelling. The images are real, but the culminating effect of Defa’s editing and sound mix is a terrifying interpretation of history that asks if artistic manipulation can reveal a greater truth than reality itself.
The opening shot presents an innocent toddler, seated on a couch, not a care in the world. It would be a charming opening scene…if he weren’t holding a knife. It’s an image that encapsulates the themes of what will follow: what appears harmless on the surface might be masking terrifying secrets. A bottle of alcohol isn’t just a Christmas gift, it’s a sign of crippling addiction. The men watching television could either be bored by the party or degenerates in disguise. The elderly woman receiving gifts might be a valued member of the family, or maybe she’s just a forgotten shell of her former self.
Defa has dubbed over the soundtrack himself, lending a sinister quality to images that might otherwise seem perfectly normal. What begins as a few bizarre voices gradually becomes a cacophony of warped noise. Casual jabs are now scathing insults, Christmas carols are satanic chants, and the off-screen whimpers of an unseen child suggest oceans of abuse bubbling behind closed doors. These aren’t the exclamations of jubilant partiers, they’re the frustrated cries of broken souls, trapped in cycles of destruction from which there’s no escape.
And in the background of it all: the children. Will they follow in their parents’ footsteps? Are they doomed to end up like Grandma, staring blankly at the empty lives they’ll one day leave behind, wondering what it all means?
Defa is clearly a man preoccupied with the recorded image. His last film was the hauntingly melancholic feature BAD FEVER, which followed a well-meaning loner through his often painful attempts at human connection. In that movie, video recording became a tool of manipulation and deceit, as if filming fictional scenarios might suddenly render them real. FAMILY NIGHTMARE functions as the opposite, reality turned fantastic in post-production, and in straddling the line between fact and fiction Defa reveals the essence of art.
Seemingly inconsequential events take on universal importance, and what could otherwise be a random collection of clips is given a coherent, if loose, narrative structure. FAMILY NIGHTMARE reminds us in 10 minutes what longer features (CLOUD ATLAS is the most recent example) often struggle to communicate: that every day and every person is a single piece in a larger cosmic story. The idea that we’re all connected might seem a cliché, but the photographic image proves it correct, acting as a bridge across time and generations.
Sometimes the only way to escape the past is to confront it. If hindsight is 20/20, the films of the past may provide insight into our present, and by documenting our reality we can transform it into something greater. The fate of FAMILY NIGHTMARE’s narrator remains unknown, but perhaps by examining this footage and editing it into something new, Defa has managed to wake up from his nightmare.
Andrew Johnson is a freelance journalist and the founder of Film Geek Radio, a network of film-and-TV-themed podcasts.