Relative – Raindance Film Festival

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Tracey Arcabasso Smith

A documentary that very much hits close to home, Relative is director Tracey Arcabasso Smith’s attempt to unravel the cycle of abuse within her own family.

The film is structured around personal accounts: Arcabasso Smith interviews family members to discuss their history. The documentary, it becomes clear, is not just examining recent evidence (Arcabasso Smith herself was abused by a cousin); the trail of abuse and abusers goes back through generations.

Arcabasso Smith intercuts this evidence with archive footage (primarily from the 1950’s). The family at the beach, at dinners. It is soberly characterised as “one big pretend”. Arcabasso Smith’s ‘Nana’ Rae Arcabasso (a central figure in the documentary) views footage of her father, acting up for the camera. Smiles for everyone else, but not behind closed doors.

It is this jarring sense of reality versus perception that colours the entire film. Arcabasso Smith also uses footage from her own counselling sessions. Her therapist, never shown on screen, is a calm, reasoning force for good. She voices a contemporary perspective. The abuse is not okay. It was never okay. But what Arcabasso Smith uncovers as she interviews her Mum and Nana, is the fear that the truth will not only permeate the family bubble, it will burst it completely.

Relative is further complicated when framed through the bonds and traditions of this Italian-American family. There is, especially in Nana’s era, an emphasis on maintaining traditional gender roles. But it goes further: she recalls abuse as a daily occurrence. Beatings, as well as inappropriate touching. The reluctance of Tracey’s family to speak out, and doubts over how much they should say, in turn raises guilt with Arcabasso Smith in asking them to go back over painful memories. Relative doesn’t shy away from complexity: nearly every person interviewed admits to feeling ashamed, as if the abuse was their fault. Arcabasso Smith also digs down into her own experiences, admitting conflicting feelings of being safe and unsafe at the same time.

The documentary’s best moments are when Relative is focused on the indomitable Nana. Aged 89, her steeliness is self-evident, and she even surprises Tracey when it is revealed she was the family photographer. Tracey watches, astonished, as Nana puts together an old projector like a pro. She is the last of her generation to survive, and her observations are not just confined to those from behind the camera. What she paints is a grim, unending cycle of violence: “it’s how things were”. The abuse was effectively sanctioned, and passed down as learned behaviour.

Arcabasso Smith’s documentary aims to unearth the secrets, give voice to the trauma and it does, to some extent, succeed. But it is the addressing of highly complex emotions – loyalty, guilt, doubt – that makes Relative such a compelling watch. The film skilfully merges public and private; home and family, to build a picture of the scale and impact of abuse. Arcabasso Smith’s careful curation not only moves the conversation forward, it acknowledges the bravery it even takes to begin.

Relative is screening at the Raindance Film Festival 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Unearthing secrets and giving voice to trauma

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The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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