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Movie Mom

Documentary Therapy: Families Use Cameras to Create Conversations (and Confrontations)

posted by Nell Minow

Last week I saw a documentary called Bigger Stronger Faster* (The Side Effects of Being an American). The film, produced by some of the people behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, ties the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports to larger issues of American ambition to be the best and newest and American optimism about the power of innovation and technology, as indicated by the second part of the title. But for me, the film was most engaging for the scenes that put it in an emerging category of documentaries, film as family therapy. Director/co-writer Chris Bell may not think of it this way, but it seemed clear that his primary motivation behind the film was less as a cautionary tale or assessment of the American character than an opportunity — perhaps an excuse — to confront his brothers on-screen about their use of steroids.

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Bell and his brothers grew up idolizing the champions of World Wrestling Entertainment and believing its superstars when they said that they achieved their bulging biceps solely through exercise and good nutrition. But revelations of steroid use by Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others made them think that they too should use steroids for both offensive and defensive reasons. Steroids would not only make them stronger; they were the only way to compete in a world where “everyone does it.” Sadly, even stronger than their dependence on steroids is Chris Bell’s brothers’ conviction that their lives can only be meaningful if they prove themselves through competition (they do not think it is cheating to use performance-enhancing substances because it is the only way to win) and through being “famous.”

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The film brings in other categories of artificial performance enhancement, from Tiger Woods’ Lasik eye surgery (which gave him better than perfect vision) to a cyclist who sleeps in a high-altitude chamber to raise his blood-oxygen level. But this is really the story of the Bell family.

Chris Bell says, “Turning the camera on my own family was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same, but I also don’t think we’ve ever been closer. This film forced us all to discuss an issue that nobody in America wants to talk honestly about. Many families struggle with issues like alcoholism, drug abuse, depression…My family’s battle just happens to be with steroids.”

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Also opening soon is Surfwise, a documentary about the Paskowitz family, whose nine children lived with their parents in a 25-foot camper, home-schooled, eating only natural, low-fat food and running a surfing camp. The father, “Doc” Dorian Paskowitz who decided to drop out of society and, according to the New York Times, “dedicated himself to uncompromised, uncompromising freedom.”

According to the Washington Post,

Dorian, now 86, is portrayed in the film as a combination Lear, Mao and Baba Ram Dass, but there’s affection as well. Time, after all, heals most, if not all, wounds.

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“One of the things it’s allowed us to have,” Joshua says of the film, “is some perspective. When we were raised in the camper, Dorian had these theories of how to be the perfect man, have the perfect wife, be in an environment of loving and caring and compassion for one another.” That worked swell until the sibs hit their teen years. “As soon as the individual identity started to come into play,” says Joshua, “that was against everything we were taught.”

So there were fights. Resistance. Territorial disputes. Some of which weren’t resolved until the film, which opens in Washington on Friday, was being made….

“What it gave us a chance to do was talk to each other, even if it was coarse or caustic,” Jonathan said. “It gave us a chance to pull together. Israel said, ‘I always wanted to make up and get together.’ So we’re in different fights now. But they’re not as bad as the old fights.”

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How bad were they?

Jonathan: “Two huge grizzlies fighting for the same salmon fishing ground. . . .”

Salvador: “Grizzly bears trained by the gnarliest, ultimate one-eyed Yukon Jack who ever lived, who taught every one of his students to never back down.”

Other recent films that use film as a way to explore and resolve family conflicts (all about missing or largely absent fathers) include My Architect: A Son’s Journey, Tarnation, Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, and Tell Them Who You Are.

It is worth talking about about what kind of documentary your own family would want to make and perhaps experiment with a home video camera by doing interviews and telling family stories.

  • Christian Toto

    My parents would make for a great documentary … imagine George Costanza’s parents, but for real!
    The Bell family in “Bigger …” is fascinating. Why do these grown men still idolize wrestlers? What’s up with their mother, who clearly loves them but appears clueless about her sons’ flaws? While the film indicts our culture, it just as harshly indicts this family.

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