Family Affair

First-time helmer Chico Colvard chronicles his siblings' incestuous plight and his father's crimes.

In “Family Affair,” first-time helmer Chico Colvard uses enormous sensitivity, as well as a plunderer’s gift for seizing the revelatory moment in chronicling his siblings’ incestuous plight and his father’s crimes. The docu he has made will shock even the most jaded auds, disgust many and generate righteous indignation in an era when such sentiments might seem passe. What it lacks is the visual material needed to construct cinema. But with a likely future on TV and DVD, that may not matter much; it’s brave film, regardless of limitations.

When he was 10, Colvard shot his sister Paula in the leg (he’d been watching “The Rifleman,” and was emulating Chuck Connors). The accident sent the family into a tailspin: Paula Colvard, traumatized, spilled what had been a years-long family secret: That Elijah Colvard Jr. had been raping his three then-adolescent daughters — Angelika, Paula and Chica — since they’d been small children.

Child sexual abuse has been so overused as a theme for cheap drama that audiences no longer react to it as the unspeakable thing it is, but “Family Affair” manages to compound the outrages: The elder Colvard is totally accessible to his son’s camera, seemingly unrepentant and almost defiant about what he has admitted he did. But the real jolt comes from the daughters, who insist on trying to maintain a relationship with their abuser despite his lack of remorse, and the evident damage done to each of them. Looking at the snarled relationships between father and daughters, the unresolved anger and the rationalizations, is like staring into an abyss.

Ultimately, though, it’s a fishbowl of a movie: The sisters’ statements, including some that reflect almost kindly on sex with their father, seem so psychologically baroque that the viewer never has any reason to think he or she is being given a window into the heart of the matter. “Family Affair” is a status report, not an exploration, and certainly not a catharsis.

Colvard has the kind of access no one would ever be granted, and an unparalleled knowledge of the situation, but you wished he’d asked more questions. For instance, when he reunites with his mother after 18 years, he never asks how what happened could have happened without her knowledge, or why exactly she left after years of abuse by the elder Colvard. Or how exactly the 1978 shooting unleashed such a can of ugly worms.

Production values are mostly adequate, although Miriam Cutler’s score is emotionally apt.

Family Affair

  • Production: A C-Line Films presentation. Produced by Chico Colvard, Liz Garbus. Executive producers, Dan Cogan, Abigail Disney. Directed, written by Chico Colvard.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Colvard; editor, Rachel J. Clark; music, Miriam Cutler. Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2010. Running time: 80 MIN.