Reading an article in yesterday’s Times on documentaries about famous parents by their children, it was striking to realize that the overwhelming majority of those who have been so profiled—the architect Louis Kahn, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Brooklyn-born folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the lawyers William Kunstler and Martin Garbus—were Jews.
What to make of such an intersection? There’s maybe a sociological explanation: there is, of course, no shortage of Jews working in film. There’s a psychological explanation: documentaries about parents can be seen as a species of therapy—albeit in sessions that last around 90 minutes rather than 50. But there’s also the temptation to move beyond the realm of social and behavioral science and reach for something more ancient: the commandment to honor one’s parents.
It’s an unconventional definition of honoring, to be sure. Many of the filmmakers drawn to the nascent genre have had complicated relationships with their parents—or, in some cases, no relationship at all. And so, there’s an element of score-settling involved. (Just look at the picture of William Kunstler that accompanies the article, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not hagiography.) Yet, it’s clear that what animates these documentaries is a desire to understand—to understand the importance to the broader world of figures who, in the filmmakers’ eyes, once existed only as moms and dads. And what emerges, more often than not, is a sort of grudging respect. Besides, there’s a name for films about family members made without any bite: we call those home movies.