By Don Simpson | March 6, 2012
Director: Dustin Guy Defa
I fondly remember a chat I had with director Dustin Guy Defa after a screening of his feature Bad Fever in Austin. Defa had just wrapped post-production on a short film — a hybrid documentary in which he took some home movies and overdubbed new voices. As we were discussing this strange new venture, Clio Barnard‘s The Arbor instantly came to both of our minds. Defa’s project sounded like the inverse of Barnard’s verbatim theater — rather than casting actors to lip-sync dialogue from audio-recorded interviews, Defa uses low quality video images of real people and overdubs the dialogue in his own voice(s).
After my discussion with Defa, I still could not fathom what his resulting short film would be like…that is, until now. Thanks to True/False 2012, I have watched Family Nightmare and lived to tell the tale; and though the screening was two days ago and I am still rendered absolutely speechless. You know what? The last time I remember feeling this shocked and awed by a film was after my first viewing of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. The two films do share a certain kinship in their portrayals of absurdly dysfunctional family units, but the fact that Defa’s film is real (the footage is of his own family) really amps up the effectiveness of Family Nightmare.
As you probably guessed (especially from the title of the film and the Harmony Korine comparison), Defa’s family is not normal. (Then again, whose family is?) For example, an early shot reveals a baby sitting alone playing with a knife. Yes, a knife. It looks very sharp. No one seems to care. Another example? Well, okay… You know how males at most “typical” family gatherings crowd around the television set to watch the big game? Well, the men of Defa’s family sit around watching porn together. (As the saying probably goes, a family that ejaculates together stays together.) It is really not all that surprising Defa left town and headed to Salt Lake City. I would have done the same.
Sure, the footage is crazy in and of itself, but then Defa goes and overdubs all of the dialogue…himself. His various voices (some goofy, some creepy) stand in for everyone in his entire family and the trick is pulled off with pure comedic brilliance.
The process of making this film must have functioned — at least partially — as a means of self-therapy, a way to face the nightmares of his past head-on and do something positive with them. The result is one of the most creative cinematic endeavors I have ever witnessed. A bold statement, yes? But a true one. And probably the wisest decision Defa made was to limit the film to ten minutes; if the running time was stretched any longer, the trick probably would have lost its punch. At ten minutes, the film is damn close to perfect.