Small is rather beautiful, and also deceptively deep, in Eric Caravaca’s family-history documentary “Plot 35.” Across its slender 65-minute running time it packs the emotional resonance of many a longer feature, if only because, as much as it does describe an arc of change (by its close, there is a photograph on a gravestone where previously there was a gaping absence), it also understands that not all questions have satisfactory answers, and no matter how directly we confront our loved ones, they are their own people, and their secrets belong to them. “Plot 35” doesn’t just explore a family tragedy — it explores the tragedy of family, the way that loving our parents is not the same as understanding them, just as for them, loving their children does not always mean telling them the truth.
It’s noteworthy that Caravaca is an established French actor (he also heads up Philippe Garrel’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight title “Lover for a Day”), as the film’s closest analog is probably the wonderful “Stories We Tell,” by Canadian actor-director Sarah Polley. Perhaps there is something in an actor’s nature that gives the exploration of family secrets such a keen edge. But Caravaca’s film could just as well have been titled “Stories We Don’t Tell”: The “plot” of the title is in a graveyard in Casablanca where he believes his sister, Christine, who died as a child, is buried, but he is fascinated not so much by the story of her short life as by the systematic erasure of it from their family history by his parents. Caravaca, who is present in the solemn, sonorous voiceover and as the offscreen interlocutor in interviews with family members, sets out to investigate why Christine’s death was the source of so much shame and obfuscation.
Almost immediately, he runs into dark revelations and blank contradictions, some of which are red herrings, some of which point to sinister undercurrents: There is no plot number 35 in the graveyard; his mother claims that Christine lived to three years of age, while his father, who dies during the process of the film’s creation, claims it was only four months, and travel documents imply that neither parent was present when the girl died. Not all of these contradictions are, or ever will be, fully reconciled.
In the course of his investigation he weaves in allusions to Algerian, Moroccan and French colonial history, comparing the deliberate national policy of forgetfulness that followed the Algerian war of independence to the abrogation of Christine’s memory, though never bombastically so. He also displays a cinephile’s faith in the filmed and photographed image: There is no Christine in large part because there are no pictures of her and no 8mm home video footage of her. All of it was burned by his mother, whose explanation for this extreme course of action, “What should I do, cry over it?” is, like many of her replies, no real explanation at all.
This “pics or it didn’t happen” attitude, like many of the more tenuous connections between the intimate and the epic here, is only obliquely spelled out. Caravaca’s impulse is always toward the associative, the impressionist and the poetic rather than the literal. But it is present in his obsessive examination of his parents’ home movies as well as in shocking newsreel footage of atrocities during the Algerian war of independence and in grotesque images from Nazi propaganda movies extolling the “moral duty” that is euthanizing the handicapped. By resurrecting this footage — of his parents when young, happy and carefree, of mutilated anonymous soldiers dying in the muck and of physically deformed and otherwise afflicted, doomed children — Caravaca, like the cinema archive he visits at one point, is restoring these neglected images, as if in so doing he can save all the people they portray from the flames of history too. The evocative, intimate “Plot 35” is a tiny but valuable act of unforgetting.