Thy Father's Chair


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Father's Chair
"A humane film which, though it contains a lot of pain, points the way toward hope."

Over the past decade, television has developed a fascination with hoarders. As one TV executive put it to me, "these programmes cost hardly anything to make and people love them". They provide an opportunity to peer into other people's private lives and feel superior for having slightly less messy surroundings. Thy Father's Chair is, ostensibly, a big screen documentary with a similar pretext, but it is made with a grace and sympathy that gives it a very different character.

Abraham and Shraga are twin brothers who live quietly in their Brooklyn townhouse, where they have been alone since the deaths of their parents. To generate enough money to get by, they let the upper part of the building to a tenant, but now the tenant has given them an ultimatum. The smell from their part of the building is so bad, he says, that he won't pay them any more rent unless they get it professionally cleaned.

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The question of how it got this bad is a complex one. Watching the cleaning process, which is captured in vérité style (the film is dedicated to Chantal Akerman), we are seeing layers of life and self stripped away. Initially, it seems, the brothers simply didn't want to part with anything that reminded them of their parents. This developed into a policy of throwing nothing away. There's a practical aspect to the policy: they are keen to reuse and recycle, and discuss the possibility of giving some of their things to those in need - but because their approach has extended to a failure to dispose of out-of-life food, and because they have let stray cats use the place as they see fit, much of what might once have been useful is now in a state of advanced decay. That repulsive smell - revealed here in the expressions of neighbours and even on the faces of the brothers themselves - is a warning of serious health hazards.

Also wrapped up in this material tangle of a life are aspects of the brothers' religion, something which seems less certain now than once it did. Perhaps unknowingly, they have adhered more and more closely to scrolls and mementos as embodiments of faith, losing touch with the spiritual. The notion that these objects may now be taken away is intensely distressing but, as it begins, it makes way for a new clarity of thought. We gradually see this extend into other areas of life.

Central to this process is the head of the cleaning company. From the outset, he views the brothers' situation sympathetically, making no judgement. Though he's firm in his insistence that certain things have to go, he is careful to help them understand why, and is as flexible as he can be in providing different options - for instance, having their father's chair shampooed instead of taken away. We assume that he has dealt with many similar cases before, and he clearly understands the existential aspects of what might look to an outsider like a purely practical problem. The result is a humane film which, though it contains a lot of pain, points the way toward hope. Gradually shedding the trappings of the past with this kind stranger's guidance, the brothers finally have a chance to connect with the world on terms that are purely their own.

Directors Àlex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi follow their subjects on a journey that is truly life changing. Unintrusive and respectful as they are, they bring us right into their subjects' world and make room for unexpected empathy.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2017
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Orthodox Jewish identical twin hoarders finally allow a cleaning crew to save their Brooklyn home.

Director: Àlex Lora, Antonio Tibaldi

Year: 2015

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2016

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