Some subjects just hit closer to home than others. I can’t fully imagine the perspective of a Holocaust survivor when watching The Sorrow and the Pity. And as a child of the 1970s, I got a real kick out of skateboarding doc Dogtown and Z-Boys. But when I heard that Doug Block was making a documentary that traces his relationship with his daughter from her early years to sending her off to college, I knew I’d be watching it with very, very vested interest.
As the father of two girls, I have often thought about what it would be like to document their lives in different ways. Well, Block has done it with The Kids Grow Up, which has a very 28 Up (the seminal English series directed by Michael Apted) feel: he uses clips of his daughter, Lucy, from her toddler years through to her teens, sometimes asking her the same questions so we get to see them answered by the same person at very different stages of her life. (Block says he hasn’t seen much of the Up series… he should!)
It’s a powerful film, and I have to admit, I’m glad he made it and I’m glad that I didn’t, because I get the reward of watching it but not living through it. I say this because — and you see this in the film — the taping itself becomes a painful part of the father-daughter dynamic. I was actually surprised and, at times, horrified at how Block was willing to use footage that makes him appear, well, suffocating. If anything, it was instructive.
The guy clearly loves his daughter very much. And she seems like someone with her head on her shoulders, so he — and his wife, who is featured prominently in the film — deserves a lot of credit for that. But this film is not a feel-good celebration; not that it should be. It’s very real. And it can be gripping. But I imagine audiences might be surprised at how painful this film becomes at times.
I asked Block a series of questions. You can catch The Kids Grow Up at the Angelika theater in New York City, and it’ll be coming to other cities across the country.
Doc Soup Man: How do you think making the documentary changed your relationship with your daughter? I know that’s a question that could take a long time to answer, but I’m specifically interested in how the film may have actually reinforced the difficulty of letting go because you had a narrative you were constructing in the film, a narrative you didn’t seem to want to end…
Doug Block: The very last week of filming right before Lucy left home caused a bit of a strain for a while. Lucy was getting increasingly stressed out about leaving for college and grew tired of me trying to be both a father and a filmmaker. She wanted a father only at that point, and I don’t blame her a bit. I cut back the filming as much as I possibly could, but there were some critical scenes that still needed to be shot, such as packing out, leaving home and the actual moment of saying goodbye at college. It was pretty hellish for me. I was constantly questioning whether it was worth pushing her limits for the sake of a film. And of course I desperately wanted to be there for her as a father. Thankfully, Lucy never suggested I stop and I plowed on as best I could. And I think she got past all of it relatively quickly once she was in college.
Aside from that fairly short blip, I think the documentary brought us closer, at least on my end. I spent a lot of time thinking about my daughter, shooting with my daughter, asking questions and getting to know her better. And for the most part Lucy welcomed that. But maybe I don’t have the best perspective on it, and Lucy and I continue to talk about that time and what we both went through. Before she returned to college for her senior year this past August, I shot a 45-minute interview with her (the first time I pointed a camera at her since she’d left three years before) that covered our feelings about the whole process. It’s intended to be part of a DVD extra, ultimately, but I’ve posted part of the transcript as a blog entry on the film’s website because I think it’s really important for Lucy to have a platform for her reactions, both pro and con, as the film goes out publicly. And I think it’s a fascinating discussion about the power play between documentary filmmaker and subject, much less father and daughter. Lucy is frighteningly articulate, I should add.
As for the film impacting my letting go of Lucy, I’d say the editing of the film made it easier because I was able to throw myself into an all-consuming creative endeavor that kept Lucy with me, so to speak, for a long time. My editor (Maeve O’Boyle) and I worked on it right up to our world premiere at IDFA last year at this time. It was only after I returned and Maeve’s work was done that the empty nest really hit home full force. That was a tough time.
How much did Michael Apted’s Up series influence you in the making of this film?
Not at all. I’ve only seen small bits of two of the films, so I never got a sense of the trajectory of time on the characters.
Is there a particular phase of Lucy’s life that you particularly enjoy seeing on film? Why?
Well, I love how whenever we cut to Lucy in the past, she’s a different age and it’s never chronological. And no matter her age, something gets revealed that informs who Lucy is when we go back to her in the present. That said, I particularly like her excitement and exuberance at age 6 when she’s getting her ears pierced for the first time, and her sassiness and wit in the interview when I ask her what the guy she marries will be like. "I don’t know," she replies, "I’m 10."
Since the making of the film is long over, how have your relationships with your daughter and wife evolved, or are they on a similar course as we see in the film? I’m curious if turning the camera off changed things…
Lucy and I have a wonderful adult relationship now, but it’s not because I’ve turned the camera off. We had a great relationship as she was growing up, too. I have only myself to blame for it, but it’s easily misconstrued how much I shot with her over the years. It was quite periodic, generally in short doses, and either done for posterity or for fun, rather than having a film in mind. I think I have a total of less than 50 hours of family footage that includes her over the 17 years of her life before filming The Kids. And that includes events Lucy was part of, like plays, concerts and volleyball games. In other words, I hardly hounded her with my camera.
As for Marjorie, she likes to call our relationship a continuing work in progress. Our relationship, and the empty nest, in particular, will actually be the leaping off point for my next film, which explores long-term marriage (mostly through the wedding videos that I’ve shot over the past 15 years to supplement my documentary work). But she’s very supportive of my doing these kinds of family films because, for one thing, she understands that, while it’s not exactly therapy, I work out my issues through making personal documentaries. And she knows I won’t exploit my family members or make them look bad, in the process. I may wind up looking bad, but that’s another matter.