The documentary as autobiography has been around for a while, with filmmakers like Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) turning “personal essay” films into exercises in family history and a soul searching exploration of one’s place in it.
Filmmaker and sometime actress Rebecca Huntt makes a Millennial-defining statement on the genre with “Beba,” an alternately searing and scalding piece of family history that doesn’t spare the beautiful narcissist doing the examining, either.
“I am the lens, the subject, the authority,” she declares in voice-over behind images of her on the beach, walking the New York streets and the like. “Violence lives in my DNA. I use it to hurt those closest to me.”
A film eight years in the making, shot on sumptuous, saturated (16mm) celluloid, “Beba” explores “the curses of my family slowly killing us,” seeing herself as the product of her striving and succeeding immigrant parents and her trainwreck siblings, and her place within that circle of pain.
Her father fled Trujillo’s dictatorial oligarchy and its “ethnic cleansing” of the Dominican Republic to New York, where after the shock of seeing 1960s Bedford Stuyvesant , vowed to get out of there and move his family to Central Park West. Which, after marrying a rebellious middle class Venezuelan college graduate, he did.
Huntt, whom her mother nicknamed “Beba,” and her two older siblings, lived with their parents in a crowded rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment at that tony address, “the poorest kids in Central Park West.”
She talks with her doting, proud Dad and her reluctant mother. And while we don’t know how they made a living and managed to lift this family into the middle class, we start to get a hint of Beba’s grievances, how she doesn’t really “get” her father, and heaps blame on her stern, fair-skinned mother, who snippily cuts off the interview in the middle of Rebecca’s accusation of “microaggressions.”
“I am going to war,” she warned us in the opening voice over, “and there will be casualties.”
Existential angst is laid bare in this self-portrait masquerading as family photo album. We don’t really hear from her estranged brother Juancarlos, just that he made Beba cry on a family drive to Disney World “and that’s the last time my brother remembers our father talking to him.” Her free spirited, pot smoking, rebel sister Raquel whirls through a chain-smoking walk/chat that reveals little but her restlessness, “agoraphobia” Beba says.
Director of photography and camera operator Sophia Stieglitz got years of shots of model-slim and pretty Rebecca/Beba as she debates “privilege” with her mostly-white college crowd, remembers a Latin lover who killed himself and weeps while singing a sad Dominican song at a karaoke bar and narrates her story in voice over.
Still, the Disney World trip and Central Park West clues hint at a pretty normal, middle class upbringing. Rebecca got into prestigious Bard College, indulged by her favorite professor (interviewed here), who recalls her seemingly taking that education for granted, she was shaped by an upscale and free thinking school where Mia and Ronan Farrow, Tom Ford, Todd Haynes, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest and the rich lads who formed Steely Dan matriculated and where the great philosopher Hannah Arendt once taught.
She studied abroad, and chose Ghana in West Africa for that. Rebecca Huntt all but demands that we ask, “What is this spoiled, entitled brat’s problem?”
She talks about Blackness in identity politics terms, but we aren’t shown specific examples of barriers and burdens associated with race and class. She moves back home some time after college, and admits her callous treatment of her and describes the ongoing war with her brother that includes his cruel sabotage — in her eyes — of a coveted job interview in film production.
And she finds the most pretentious turn of phrase for wanting to learn to cook for herself, “making time for the ritual of cooking.”
Yes, there are eye-rolling moments at her expense aplenty. But as we remember this is her film and that her portrayal is under her control, we appreciate the bluntness, the “snitching” she’s doing on her family, whom she confesses may “never speak” to her again, and herself.
Her family’s history, and her own racial status, help explain Beba’s angst. And if she’s asking DNA-deep questions, looking for answers and somewhat adrift and perhaps not wholly self-aware as she does it, maybe that’s a hallmark of her generation.
“Beba” is not a feat she’ll be able to repeat, not with herself and her family as subject matter. She’s unlikely to ever have the many years it took to make this deep dive. Thanks to this beautiful, nakedly honest film, she could be a filmmaker and a screen presence to watch. Or this could be that one movie she has in her.
Either way, Huntt laid it all out there and put it all on the screen and let the family-rending chips fall where they may, and she should be celebrated for having the guts to strip herself and those around her this naked with her snitching.
We are all heroes of our own stories, victims of our own tragedies. And as Huntt reminds us, at times we can be the villains, as well.
Rating: R, for language (profanity)
Cast: Rebecca Huntt
Credits: Scripted and directed by Rebecca Huntt. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:20