I'm not sure that Tracey Arcabasso Smith's Relative will get the recognition that it deserves even as a Grand Jury Prize nominee for doc feature at the 2022 Nashville Film Festival, the latest festival stop for the lightly familiar yet remarkably unique film that left me feeling both exhilarated and exhausted as the closing credits rolled and I was left to contemplate the film's impact on my heart and mind.
We've certainly seen similarly themed films before. We've seen well-meaning filmmakers tackling their own traumatic histories and we've seen passionate, determined filmmakers confronting abusive cycles and dysfunctional families.
On the surface, at least, we've seen films like Relative.
Yet, I'm not sure we've actually seen a film like Relative. With Relative, Smith starts from a place of speaking her own truths of experiencing childhood sexual abuse. It is within these intimate revelations, perhaps most powerfully manifested through an early in the film conversation she has with her mother, that she begins to unfold a complex tapestry of multigenerational sexual abuse in her Italian-American family. While these revelations could have overwhelmed the film, Relative is bathed in so much intimacy and simplicity that instead of this sense of overwhelm it feels as if we've sat alongside Smith for these long-repressed conversations that will either create division or direct us down a road less traveled.
While it is clear from Relative that this multigenerational sexual abuse has primarily impacted the women in Smith's family, I can't deny that as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself I found myself resonating in remarkable ways with these stories as they unfolded. I undeniably shed tears more than once over the course of this 72-minute documentary and I reflected upon my own journey telling secrets that had long been withheld and that, in my case, led primarily to fractured relationships and division with the occasional conversation that would largely start with "I understand" before dissipating into silence.
There's always a certain cinematic danger in having the filmmaker be present on the screen, though Smith uses her time wisely here and is absolutely essential to the film's success. While many similarly themed docs have an almost artificial sheen to them, Relative constantly feels like a home movie running alongside the many photos and videos that Smith brings to life throughout the film. This approach, poignantly released by the intimate lensing of Topaz Adizes and an enveloping, unforgettable score by Garth Stevenson, immerses us alongside Smith in a way that is jarring yet surprisingly not traumatic. Smith presents herself so humanely here that there were times I forgot she was also directing this effort. It constantly feels as if Smith is truly feeling every moment of this film, somehow processing these conversations and memories yet also becoming constantly aware that this project she committed herself to has become so much more than she ever imagined.
What's refreshing about Relative is that it's not simply about good and bad. It's about the overwhelming complexity that is abuse and the power of one voice choosing to at least try to break that cycle even while dealing with shame and blame, cultural factors, family loyalties, and so much more. I'd dare say that as these conversations unfold we'll all hear words spoken we've heard before including reason after reason about why the secrets were kept and the cycle allowed to perpetuate.
Relative is produced by Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and Jenya James Hamidi (Booktube) along with Smith with Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Charlotte Cook serving as executive producer. While not always an easy film to watch, Relative is one of my favorite films to come out of the 2022 Nashville Film Festival and a film I won't soon forget.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic