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El Father Plays Himself 2020


Distributed by Grasshopper Film, 12 East 32nd St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Produced by Manon Ardisson and Rodrigo Michelangeli
Directed by Mo Scarpelli
Streaming, 105 mins

High School - General Adult
Documentaries; Family Relations; Sociology

Date Entered: 10/27/2021

Reviewed by Jennifer Dean, Film Editor, Filmmaker, Film Curator

Filmmaker Mo Scarpelli’s documentary El Father Plays Himself opens with a quote from Romula Gallegos’ Canima, “There are mirrors scattered all over the humanity of the earth where you can spy the most distant and tangled things. The important thing is to know how to look without turning away.” The excerpt prepares the audience for this documentary shot in the Amazon in Venezuela, a place of immense beauty facing human destruction, where narrative film director Jorge Theilene Armand attempts to harness the energy of his father on film despite the challenges of his father’s often debilitating alcoholism and egotism. Incredible micro shots of insects and macro shots of the Amazon landscape offer perspective and much welcome relief during this otherwise insular story which allows the viewer to fully engage with the more devastatingly personal moments between father and son.

Scarpelli turns the camera on Armand as he directs a film based on his father’s life and experiences. As well as providing the character and narrative for this biographical fiction, his father (Jorge Roque Thiele) is also the main actor. In her own film, capturing behind-the-scenes, Scarpelli tells the story of father and son, but more specifically the father as perceived by the son - rarely in this piece do we see El Father without the son or the camera crew as intermediaries. One particularly poignant moment captures father and son smoking together, clearly resembling one another in both appearance and mannerisms - and yet this clip only highlights the schism between them that is apparent throughout the film.

Scarpelli writes on the documentary’s website, “The intention of my films is to linger, to study faces and reactions, and ultimately, to allow people to betray their own or others’ versions of themselves.” There are some wonderful snippets of expression with the subjects throughout this film, but it feels as though she could have gone further in exploring the philosophy by not focusing on some of the more clearly “making of” moments where typical filmmaker questions in terms of camera and set up occur. Those elements distracted from the core of this story. It is not a traditional analysis of the making of a feature along the lines of Hearts of Darkness (the Eleanor Coppola film exploring the making of Apocalypse Now) or (the documentary on the movie that didn’t get made, Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). It is a character-driven documentary about a son’s quest to make a connection with the father he only had a fleeting relationship with in his youth. Therefore, questions of lens choices or tripod versus hand-held shots only distract from the essence of the film. The substance of the piece lies in scenes between father and son as depicted in a moment where Armand is holding his father’s hand to prevent him from physically harming himself after the shooting of a scene.

In the middle of the film, Armand has a conversation with what we assume to be a producer who questions whether his father will be upset by seeing the way he is portrayed on screen. The viewer cannot help but question, is this referring to the narrative fiction film or the documentary? How does the issue of what to present differ when it is regarding filming family? What are the responsibilities of the filmmaker when filming truth versus filming fiction? This film could be a useful tool to show in a documentary, a fiction or even a film production course exploring these ethical questions - especially as a companion piece to the narrative fiction film itself (La Fortaleza). El Father Plays Himself also would be recommended in a pairing with Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (which merges footage of Akerman’s time in New York City with audio of her reading letters written from her Mother in France) to explore the complexities of parent/child dynamics in the context of migration. In a very specific course on working with films with actors portraying themselves this could be included with the likes of Battle of Algiers, Nomadland and others to explore what it means to create a fiction of someone’s life where non-performers play themselves in a structured fabricated narrative.

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