Surfacing in U.S. fests on the heels of HBO telepic “Normal” (in which a Midwestern husband and father undergoes a sex-change operation), there’s a certain stranger-than-fiction fascination to Even Benestad’s “All About My Father,” which documents the nearly lifelong cross-dressing habits of the filmmaker’s father. But Benestad’s film is more exploratory than exploitative — a movie that seeks to understand the incomprehensible, to see through the camera’s lens that which can not be perceived by the human eye. Already a festival veteran (it premiered at Berlin in 2002), docu now seems poised for a second round of specialized gay and docu fests, with tube sales likely to follow.
Though it lacks the cumulative power of such other recent first-person docus as “Hybrid” and “My Father the Genius,” “All About My Father” is born from that same, autobiographical spirit that recognizes people’s innate willingness to reveal things on film (or video) they might otherwise keep hidden. And like its predecessors, “All About My Father” is concerned with that age-old dilemma of children growing apart from their parents, of childhood idolatry evolving into an understanding of parents as real human beings with their own desires and unrealized dreams.
Esben Benestad says he’s been donning women’s clothing since earliest childhood, when he would stay behind from family outings to suit up in mom’s dresses. Surprisingly unguarded in front of his son’s camera, Benestad confesses to having had his first auto-erotic experience under these circumstances, as well as to hiding the behavior from his first wife (the filmmaker’s mother) and how the strain of the double-life he could not stop leading ultimately, painfully unraveled that marriage.
An evidently “straight” man who has had two marriages to heterosexual women and has fathered two children, Benestad has created for himself an entirely distinct female persona (a buxom brunette called Esther Pirelli). Borrowing from Almodovar not just most of the pic’s title, but some of the same, liquid attitude toward gender identity, the helmer has tried to embrace his father’s contradictions, to try to see things from his dad’s p.o.v. — and, ultimately, to determine for himself whether or not his father can be all he claims to be and still be a father.
The filmmaker follows his father through daily activities in the small Norwegian town where he resides, maintains an optometry practice and has, apparently, been accepted by most of the locals as both Esben and Esther.
But the real strength of “All About My Father” is in the suffocating, black-and-white interviews Benestad conducts with his sister, mother, stepmother and, of course, Esben/Esther — compositions close-cropped, both aesthetically and emotionally. Clearly, to his family, Esben/Esther’s transvestitism is the proverbial elephant in the living room that, until the making of this film, has been more ignored than accepted, so much so that the filming itself becomes self-conscious, with as many sit-down, newsmagazine-style interviews as verite moments. Indeed, everyone seems aware of how even the most truth-seeking cinema can take on a distortive, house-of-mirrors effect.
Though it is presented by a division of Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainment, docu largely eschews Dogme production values in favor of a more formalist look, both in the black-and-white, video-shot interview segments and the saturated, color-film inserts used, sparingly and at choice moments, for heightened emotional resonance.