Face To Face With The Past (Part 2):
Alan Berliner’s “Nobody’s Business”
by Andrew J. Horton (from Kinoeye)
Intrigued by his family’s Central European past, Alan Berliner turned the camera on his father to find out more. Nobody’s Business (USA, 1996) is Berliner’s witty account of the uphill struggle which followed. You might have thought that interviewing your father would be a relatively easy thing for a documentarist to do. You obviously don’t have a father like Alan Berliner’s. Tetchy and cantankerous, Oscar Berliner has little understanding for his son’s project – and this is the joy of the film.
The film starts with Alan trying to explore the family’s past (Berliner’s previous three films have dealt with issues around the family). His grandfather was born somewhere in Poland and this, to Alan, is fascinating. To Oscar, however, it is not. Whereas Oscar was born in an era when an ethnic background was a disadvantage – everyone wanted to be American and forget about where they came from – Alan lives in an America where the mainstream culture is increasingly bland and more and more people are seeking out the spice of their ethnic past to re-invigorate their identity.
Alan, therefore, has to assemble what information he can on his own to prove to his father that their common past is worth recovering. However, as Alan digs up successive pieces of information about the family’s past, even travelling to Central Europe, Oscar remains convinced that the whole exercise is fruitless.
If Oscar is convinced of one thing throughout the interview it is that his story is not worth recounting and in some ways you can see his point. When he shouts at his son that his story is “no different from who knows how many millions of people,” you have to admit that he is on to something. Berliner Jr’s skill is in how he turns quite unremarkable material and an unbelievably uncooperative father into a hit film.
Using home videos, photos, maps, letters and family interviews, Berliner assembles the biography of a truly ordinary man: his roots, his life, his failed marriage to a blonde several years his junior and his reclusive and lonely retirement. Berliner forces the pace of the film on by use of well-timed editing techniques. In some places a clip of two boxers fighting is interspliced with the interview to represent the battle between the Berliners pere and fils. If Berliner uses arty and experimental editing techniques, he keeps a firm grip on them, and the film is never so avant garde to lose the attention of your average Joe Public.
Berliner is able to pull the whole project off because underlying it all he has an agenda. His interest is in the various facets of identity surrounding his father’s story; the lost Yiddish roots of his grandfather, the issues of ethnic identification in America, just what it means to be blood relations, the father-son relationship and what identity you need to keep you alive. For all Berliner Sr complains about the unwarranted attention of the camera, the weekly interview sessions, we learn, are one of the few things which keep him alive.
The film has had an unusual side-effect on Oscar Berliner: when he attended the 1996 New York Film Festival he received a standing ovation and he is now something of an iconic figure of ordinariness. Alan hasn’t done too badly out of the film either. Its screening at Brighton is just one of many successful international showings, and he has established himself as one of America’s hottest experimental documentarists. With each film he makes becoming more and more personal, it will be interesting to see how close he can get his camera to his next subject.
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