Real-life variations on the theme of family: ‘The Good Life,’ ‘Donor Unknown,’ ‘Gone’

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Still image from The Good Life. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Three very different documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival deal with the concept of family, which is often in the news these days in the context of efforts by regressive groups to define what "family" means.

One of the films, The Good Life, starts with shots of boiling, crashing surf (an image repeated throughout the film, bringing up associations of turmoil and flux), then cuts to a white-haired woman in her 50s saying, bluntly, to the camera, "I tend to flee and pull away from things. I never get involved in anything."

This is our introduction to Anne Mette Beckmann, a Danish woman who grew up assuming she would inherit great wealth. Since her family's fortune disappeared in the 1970s, she has been categorically unable to adjust to her new circumstances. Her attitude seems to be, No, no, that is the life I was supposed to have, the good one, and if I can't have that, then I don't want anything.

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The Good Life, brought to us by prize-winning Danish documentarian Eva Mulvad, tells the story of a once-rich mother and daughter, now down on their luck, locked into a symbiotic, querulous relationship with one another. This obviously calls to mind one of the most famous documentaries ever made, the Mayles' brothers' Grey Gardens, the 1975 movie that details the lives of mother and daughter Edith and Edie Beale (Big Edie and Little Edie) in their once-palatial home in the Hamptons, now descended into unforgettable squalor, surrounded by feral cats and ghosts of the past. But despite the mother-daughter focus, The Good Life is not Grey Gardens, and it shouldn't suffer by comparison.

When the film opens, mother Mette Beckmann and daughter Anne Mette Beckmann are living in a small seaside town in Portugal. Mette had married Valdemar Beckmann (his portrait is still on the table), who was the son of a wealthy Danish businessman with a shipbuilding business in Portugal. Valdemar (according to comments made by Mette) seems just to have wanted to live off of his father's money, and didn't manage his finances well.

In 1974, there was a socialist revolution in Portugal, and when the communists took power, the Beckmanns lost their vast fortune. Valdemar Beckmann died in 2007, and since then Mette Beckmann and her daughter, Anne Mette Beckmann (who never married), live on a tiny pension provided to the mother by the Danish government.

It is not quite enough for two people to live on. Their small flat is crammed full of stuff from their old life, remnants of the vast wealth they once had. In grainy, haunting home movies, we see their mansion from the past, the orchards and swimming pools, the echoing halls lined with paintings. Anne, the daughter, grew up as a veritable princess (there is one shot of her as a little girl descending the steps into the garden wearing a green velvet dress and a pointy princess hat), and is full of resentment, seething like the surf, about all that has been denied to her.

She blames her mother: "You didn't raise me well." Mother Mette nods wearily. "It's true, I didn't raise you well," she agrees.

Anne thinks that parents either need to set their daughters up for life, financially, or they have to make sure their daughters are educated and have some kind of trade. It is a constant theme, a point of argument between her and her mother, as they maneuver around one another in their tiny flat.

Anne's memories of her childhood have been hijacked. The mansion she grew up in becomes an Emerald City, glittering on the horizon, beckoning, full of the promise life once had. If she had only been allowed to stay there, everything would be different now. She would be happy, and life would be sunshine and roses.

Although "you didn't raise me well" is a terrible thing to say to a parent, by the end of the film it is apparent that Anne is onto something. Even wealthy people need to be brought up to have ambition and drive, or at least a sense of agency in their own destinies. Anne Mette Beckmann was not raised that way. She was pampered, spoiled, and shielded completely from reality, until the walls came crashing down. In one tragi-comic scene, she decides to apply to be a real estate agent, thinking it would be fun, and since she has never had a job, she writes up a resume by hand. She includes on the resume, "Went to all the posh parties in Paris." Although she is 56, what, exactly, has her life added up to? Whatever it is, it's not appropriate for a resume.

Mulvad spent three years filming the Beckmanns, and the intimacy of her contact with them is evident in the womens' comfort in front of the camera. The two women sit together in their flat, sometimes in the same frame, and talk directly to the camera with an openness and unguarded honesty that is, at times, breathtaking. These are funny women, too. They are both wisecrackers. Their dialogue to one another is often cruel, but there is a sense that this is rote to them and arguments like these are how they let off steam. Anne states fiercely to the camera at one point, "I'd rather die than work", and her mother nods sadly, "It's true."

Anne, while extremely childish in many respects, is also a wheeler-and-dealer, expert at negotiating with people to get what she wants for free (or at least at a reduced rate). She convinces the grocer to put things on a tab for her, calling out "Thank you!" as she leaves the shop, she sets up payment plans in order to get her car out of hock.

She does not droop with self-pity (her only real self-pitying moment is when she sobs to the camera, "I don't think I've done that many things wrong"). More than being sad, she's angry that life has passed her by. She puts on makeup and goes out to a nightclub, dancing by herself on the dance floor, as the lights bathe her in red, green, blue. She is the oldest person in that night club. There is something heart-rending about the image of her dancing around by herself, but also something courageous. She dares you to feel sorry for her, a white-haired woman in a tight satin shirt, dancing by herself. And you don't feel sorry for her. She's having fun. She has a right to be there.

Mother Mette states at one point, "We old rich are the new poor." To both women, the past is preferable to the present. When nostalgia becomes a way of life, it is a trap. It requires that you leave out the bad parts of your memories in your insistence that everything was great "back then". Director Eva Mulvad finds the perfect balance in putting together the vast quantity of filmed material she had. The Beckmanns clearly came to trust Mulvad implicitly, and never once is there the feeling that The Good Life is setting up these women to be mocked. The film is beyond those judgments. Here is how these women live. Let's listen to what they have to say about it. By keeping the focus of her film narrow, Mulvad opens a telescope up onto all kinds of universal questions and truths, about parenting, independence, and what, exactly, living "a good life" really means.

52-YEAR-OLD JEFFREY HARRISON, IN DONOR UNKNOWN, directed by British documentary filmmaker Jerry Rothwell, appears to have found the key to living a "good life": He has checked out of mainstream society entirely and lives in an RV parked on Venice Beach with his four dogs and a flock of pet pigeons. He has long hair, a chiseled face, and intense eyes. He lives off the grid, and seems to make his living doing massage here and there, but back in the 1980s he supplemented his income for a couple of years by donating sperm at California Cryobank. His number was Donor 150.

Donor Unknown doesn't start with Jeffrey. It starts with JoEllen Marsh, a 20-year-old girl raised in Pennsylvania by lesbian mothers. She always felt loved, with two involved and intelligent parents, but there was a part of her that always wanted to know about her anonymous sperm-donor father. She discovers that there is an online registry service called the Donor Sibling Registry, which connects children of the same donor, a uniquely 21st century type of family reunion. She signs up with the registry. She lists her father as Donor 150. After three years, a half-sister, Danielle Pagano, came forward, also through the registry.

The New York Times got wind of the story, and reporter Amy Harmon wrote an article in 2005 about the two girls called "Hello, I'm Your Sister. Our Father is Donor 150," and with that the floodgates opened. Not only did more half-siblings emerge, but Jeffrey himself happened to see the article lying in the trash at a cafe in Venice Beach, and felt a jolt of surprise. Donor 150? That was him!

The siblings featured in Donor Unknown are JoEllen Marsh, Fletcher Norris, Rachelle Longest, Ryann McQuilton, and Danielle Pagano, but there are more pending. Rothwell picks up the story after the siblings have all contacted one another, and after Jeffrey Harrison has come forward, declaring himself to be Donor 150. JoEllen Marsh, a composed and focused young lady, decides to travel to Venice Beach to meet her father. Some of the other siblings decide to come along. They know that Jeffrey is a bit odd, and there are interviews with some of the siblings' concerned parents, who are worried about the entry of this new force in their lives.

Reminiscent of The Kids Are All Right, the Oscar-nominated film from last year in which Mark Ruffalo, a free-living organic farmer, is suddenly revealed to be the sperm-donor-father of two teenagers, the issues here are complex. It is not as though Jeffrey Harrison was a bad father who abused and abandoned his children. There are no fears of a second betrayal. But to find out that your childrens' father lives in a filthy RV with 20 pigeons ... will that have an adverse affect on how the children feel about themselves?

The opposite seems to be the case. In his first meeting with three of the kids, he becomes obsessed and panicked about an escaped pigeon. Within 5 minutes of saying hello to the children he never knew he had, he is stalking off onto the beach, long hair flowing, calling out the pigeon's name, as the three siblings nervously try to help him. Life is too much for this man. Connection is too much. He has to launch himself above intimate relationships. His life, as it is, suits him. You can't imagine any other kind of life for him. He is kind to his kids, hugging them awkwardly, riding bikes with them along the beach and calling out to the air, "This is the best moment of my life!" It's touching.

He's clearly not an appropriate father, but again, his role in their lives calls into question words like "father" and "parent." The resemblance to his young children (all in their early 20s) is striking. All of them have identical eyes. They grew up in different households spread across America, and yet each of them has a yen for travel and adventure, something that seems to have come from that donated sperm of Jeffrey Harrison. All of them are animal lovers. They sit around together, young adults, laughing about how weird life can be, and how awesome it is that they now have one another. Jeffrey Harrison is the real star of Donor Unknown, and his presence is strong and unique. He is unintentionally funny at times, and yet he also has a self-awareness about who he is, and about the absurdity of the situation he now finds himself in. He is a riveting interview.

Egg and sperm donation is nothing new, but now, with things like the Donor Sibling Registry, offspring from IVF can now find one another for the first time in history. What does this mean for the concept of family? What does it mean to be a parent? Is the meaning of these words fixed, or is it fluid? Jeffrey Rothwell, in Donor Unknown, is not interested in coming down on one side or the other. He presents the issue clearly, with very little sentimentality, and a lot of humor. So let others fret and worry about what the word "family" means. The kids of Donor 150 (12 and counting) seem to be doing just fine.

BEFORE DISCUSSING GONE, A DOCUMENTARY BY HUSBAND-AND-WIFE team Gretchen and John Morning detailing a mother's investigation into her son's mysterious disappearance in Austria, I will admit up front to a bias. I love any television show having to do with crime or investigations or confusing forensic evidence. If there is a show on about a teenager who has disappeared in the woods, or a young man who has gone missing, I set my DVR. My true-crime bookshelf is extensive. If there is a discussion about trying to determine someone's bloodtype in the evidence left behind at the scene, I'm in. What it comes down to, for me, is satisfaction I find in watching the efforts of the police detectives who try to put together what happened.

So I was predisposed to love Gone. Filmed in a blunt style, with only a few stylistic flourishes (that, not coincidentally, don't work) Gone turns out to be a sneakily harrowing experience.

One of the ways it distinguishes itself from sensationalistic shows like Forensic Files or 48 Hours Mystery is that it only has one narrator: Kathy Gilleran, a 20-year veteran police officer from Cortland, New York, who takes it upon herself to investigate her son's mysterious disappearance in Vienna. We don't get more than one side of the story, which is a bold choice. Normally, with such material, a cop weighs in, or the detective on the scene, or you get interviews with the best friend who saw the victim last. Gretchen and John Morning* know the conventions, obviously, but they buck them by only interviewing Gilleran.

It works. It puts us directly the belljar of panic and frustration she felt, dealing with the unhelpful (and downright hostile) cops in Vienna, and her helplessness at what she should do to find out what happened to her son. But because she is a police officer, her observations are also acutely specific, with that almost supernatural "cop sense" that all homicide detectives have when they come across a certain kind of disappearance: She knows that something is not right. It's not just because she's a mother. It's because she's a cop.

Her son Aeryn worked for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, and had made what seemed to be a vibrant and successful life for himself. He was in love with the architecture of Vienna, with the street life and the cafe culture, and he had a group of friends he loved. He was also gay, with a bodybuilder's physique, and had been a Mr. Gay Austria.

There is a very funny anecdote, related by Gilleran, about when her son came out to her. She said she had known since he was a little kid that he was gay, so when he broke the news to her, she said, "Aeryn, please. I already know." Aeryn was crestfallen, and said he wanted to come out to his beloved grandmother as well, so Kathy quickly called her mother and said, "Aeryn is about to call you and tell you he's gay. Please act like you're surprised."

A picture of Aeryn emerges, through Kathy's words, as well as through his own home videos that he took as he walked through his apartment in Vienna, filming every nook and cranny, to send it back to his mother in America. Aeryn was living a life he loved, and so when he didn't show up to work for two days in a row in October, 2007, UNIDO called Kathy in the States to inform her. They didn't know what it meant, but they knew that it was not like him. Kathy immediately flew to Vienna.

This is where the story starts to turn. The police in Vienna have no interest in investigating the disappearance, and Gilleran is treated with disrespect and suspicion. Was anti-Americanism the cause of it? Or misogyny? Or homophobia? Or a mixture of all three? She says to one of the rude cops, "In America, police officers look out for other police officers." The response is a dead-eye stare.

She was told that on the evening of October 29th, her son Aeryn had been at the Kaiserbründl, a well-known sauna in Vienna, when some sort of fight broke out, and Aeryn, distraught, had fled the sauna, naked, and ran to the Danube Canal, throwing himself in. It had been, Kathy is told, "spontaneous suicide." But a body had never been recovered. The cops tell her that within hours of the report from the fisherman who witnessed the so-called "spontaneous suicide," the river had been dragged, and scuba divers and dogs had been dispatched, and that, as far as they are concerned, is the end of the story. The Viennese police treat her as though she was on trial. They don't let her go to the bathroom. They won't give her a Kleenex. One of the cops says to her, chillingly, "Are you proud that your son was Mr. Gay Austria?" Gilleran, baffled, responds that yes, yes she was proud.

Gilleran stayed with her son's boyfriend during her initial trip, and kept contact with her son's colleagues at UNIDO, asking them to help with the Viennese police. They did what they could, and provided translators, and asked the Austrian Foreign Ministry to intervene, but it did little good. Gilleran is not a rich woman, living on her retirement pension, so she returned home to America, a wrenching choice for her.

Every year, in October, she flies back to Vienna to hold a vigil outside the aforementioned Kaiserbründl, hoping that someone will come forward who has news of what happened to Aeryn. As she conducts her own informal investigation, on limited funds, and not speaking the language, with the help of a couple of cops and reporters who become interested in her case, she realizes that everything the cops told her originally was a lie. The river was not dragged, there were no scuba divers, and no dogs. The police didn't even interview the patrons of the Kaiserbründl. It's apparent that a gay man's life is flat-out worth less than a straight person's. Gilleran hears a lot of chatter about the hostile relationship between the police force and the gay and lesbian community in Vienna, and about how there had been some recent outreach programs to lessen the hostility (which, conversely, seems to have intensified the resentment of the homophobic cops).

A couple of witnesses from the night of Aeryn's disappearance come forward, after reading an article in Der Falter about the case, and said that while having dinner that night they did see a naked man fitting the description of Aeryn running down the street, and he seemed afraid for his life. These two people were never interviewed originally. It's the first solid indication that something bad had happened to Aeryn, but the details remain clouded in fog. What happened to strong Aeryn that would cause him to run for his life? What could have happened at the sauna that was so urgent it made it necessary to flee without his clothes on?

Gretchen and John Morning had heard of Gilleran's story through a newspaper article in a local Syracuse paper ten months after his disappearance. They reached out and contacted Gilleran (they were practically neighbors) and asked if they could interview her. The Mornings went into the story knowing nothing about it, and the film does unfold as a piece of investigative journalism, based on the interview of one very compelling witness. What is so memorable about Gilleran as a character is the coexistence in her of grieving mother and police officer. In the middle of her first interview with the police, while she was hysterically crying, she also was able to note the body language of all of the cops looking on, their casual poses, their blase demeanors. "They just flat-out did not care," she says.

With Gilleran talking to the camera in front of a black background, interspersed with footage of her various trips to Vienna (she documented the whole thing with a handheld camera), the film has a pared-down quality that is highly effective, making some of the added flourishes unnecessary and distracting.

As Gilleran tries to track her son's footsteps in Vienna, her camera following her progress through the beautiful streets, the Mornings have chosen to add a periodic sound effect of a man heaving for breath, meant to suggest, obviously, how Aeryn must have been in the moments before he vanished. It's a sentimental, theatrical choice, out of place in this movie. One doesn't need to be reminded so heavy-handedly of the ghostly presence of Aeryn. Kathy Gilleran is gripping enough. The story she tells is so awful, and she tells it so well, that we already look at those Viennese streets and see Aeryn everywhere. A man has vanished off the face of the earth. What the hell happened to him?

Read more reviews of Tribeca Film Festival selections by Sheila O'Malley.

*Corrected from the original version of this article.