Irritable, hard of hearing, and cosmically indifferent to his own past, Oscar Berliner may be the least enthusiastic star in motion picture history. “You’re wasting your time!” he announces when his son tells him he wants to make a film about his life. “I was in the army, I got married, I raised a family, worked hard, had my own business, that’s all. That’s nothing to make a picture about! It’s ridiculous!”
But Alan Berliner is as obstinate as his father, and his persistence has produced a heartfelt, bold exploration of the ties that bind, a stunningly rich film that Variety called a “funny, poignant, and densely textured look at family and personality.”
Nobody’s Business will air nationally Tuesday, June 3 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV continues a decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
Nobody’s Business, winner of the prestigious “International Film Critics Association Prize,” at the 1997 Berlin Film Festival, captures the life of Berliner’s cynical, reclusive father through stirringly dramatic interviews, revealing the complex relationship between father and son. Wittily illustrated by recurring clips of old black and white prize fights, Oscar and Alan verbally spar right up until the final bell. Slowly but surely, a portrait of Oscar emerges: The 10th child of polish immigrants, a WWII soldier, proud sportswear manufacturer, loving father, a lonely, divorced old man overtaken by life’s misfortunes and finally, a doting grandparent.
Incorporating strikingly candid interviews with his mother Regina, his sister Lynn, and an extended cast of first, second and third cousins, Berliner, also an Emmy award-winning editor, deftly intercuts home movies, period footage, family documents and old photographs into a richly textured cinematic biography, at once deeply personal but also surprisingly universal. The New York Times concurs, “Alan Berliner illustrates the power of fine art to transform life.”
Nobody’s Business weaves the story of one man’s life into a broader exploration of the mysteries of family history, genealogy and heredity. With unrelenting indifference, Oscar Berliner says family history “means nothing.” Undaunted, son Alan sets out on a quest to prove otherwise. His research takes him to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah where he is also given rare access to film inside the Granite Mountain Vault, a nuclear bomb-proof archive containing microfilm records for more than two billion people who have lived and died in the last 500 years. Following leads gleaned from these genealogical sources he journeys to Poland to search for the graves of his deceased ancestors. Fueled by his discoveries, Alan eventually succeeds in tracking down American relations he never knew he had.
“I called up “Berliners” from all over the country and said, “I have good reason to believe we are related. How would you like to come to New York City, all expenses paid, to talk about it on camera?” he remembers. “Most of the people were thrilled by my call and eager to cooperate. It wasn’t much more than an hour after we met that I sat each one of them in front of the camera, hoping to explore the very meaning of what it means to be related to one another . . .what it means to be cousins.” One cousin responds, “We’re related, but actually we’re strangers.” Another announces, “We’re strange relatives.” Nobody’s Business illustrates both emotionally and mathematically that all of us are ultimately “strange relatives.”
As Berliner himself states, “many professional genealogists believe that most people in the world, of whatever race, nationality, religion or ethnicity are perhaps no further related than the 50th cousin… that there really is some kind of all encompassing human family tree linking all of us. . . an idea that has always fascinated me and I wanted to use my father — a single human being — to be the key that opens the door to this larger universal theme.”
Ultimately, Nobody’s Business will touch everybody. Except maybe Oscar Berliner, who in a final note of hilarity over the closing credits chides his son for becoming a filmmaker rather than an accountant, lawyer or engineer.