I have a confession to make. Documentaries nearly always leave me cold. I just find myself unable to invest myself in the story. Even supposedly great documentaries like Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA just didn't do it for me. Sure, I understood the plight of the mine workers, and I understood what was at stake. But as the DVD was playing I found myself walking to the kitchen, making a sanwich, while only half paying attention to the film and then coming back to it. Even documentaries of my favorite musicians like Pennebaker's Dylan doc, Don't Look Back strike me as more novelty than something that deserves repeated viewings.
Still, I found myself going down to Key Cinema's Sunday afternoon to see 51 Birch Street on the last day of it's run here in Indianapolis. And in the end I found myself completely invested in the story more so than any documentary I have seen in recent years.
Doug Block is a filmaker. He has been filming family get togethers for many years, for posterity's sake. After 54 years of marraige his mother dies. 3 months later Doug's father marries his secratary of many years ago.
As Doug attempts to come to grips with this, he spends time talking to his mother's best friend. Both of his sisters. His father. A hip young Jewish rabbi. A therapist on father son relationships. And most tellingly he spends lots of time leafing through years of his late mothers journals.
There were times where this could have become a bit uncomfortable for the audience. There is something inherently strange about reading through a dead woman's diary as a son is trying to find out exactly how happy his parents marriage was. But, somehow this doesn't cross over that line for the audience, or at least me. Doug's repect for his mother and for his parents marriage always came across louder than any doubts in my head about what exactly I was seeing. Late in the movie Doug asks his mother's best friend if she would have wanted him to see these journals, he also asks a rabbi what the bible says about looking threough his late mothers journals. The rabbi answers, "What does your heart say?"
There was never any question to me that Doug's heart was curious. If there wasn't a video camera near it is still easy to picture him with the same questions and concerns. None of this seemed exhibitionist or that is was exploiting a strange situation.
What leaves me cold so oten in documentaries was the feeling that I was never getting to know the people who were being shot. I would possibly know more about their political cause. Or their on stage persona, but I never felt I could invest in a cause or persona the way i do with a character in fictional films. In that way they just don't seem as human to me, as much of a paradox as that may sound. In 51 Birch Street Doug Block created a very human documentary, and in so doing made a film that I will remember and revisit again in the future.