As important a documentary as you will see this year, Tracey Arcabasso Smith’s Relative knocks you clear off your feet. Harrowing and brave, she gives sexual abuse survivors the voice they may have lost long ago in this unforgettable film that leaves you stunned.
Unravelling a complex tapestry of vulnerability, shame, and love, the filmmaker discovers a pervasive history of multigenerational sexual abuse in her Italian-American family. Yet, as decades of secrets, home movies, and long-avoided conversations surface, a family bound by loyalty and tradition forges a new path forward.
First things first. You must watch this film, it is imperative that you do so, it is fantastic. Which leads us to perhaps the worst thing about Relative – how under the radar it will be to audiences. This is a film that has to be seen by as many people as possible. It is truly unbelievable how important this documentary is, to the point that it feels criminal. You will have seen films about such topics, but not one as deeply personal and one that hits you in the way that this one does.
Tracey’s first conversation with her mother is unbearably awkward. Tracey wants to open up about the abuse she has been through and question why nothing was done, whereas her mother is happy to keep it all locked away inside, even admitting that she herself was abused and doing so nonchalantly. But when Tracey tries to dive more into it, her mother shuts it down. The shame and loyalty to those long dead still remain for her generation, something that Arcabasso Smith can no longer willingly do. So she has to release all of this pain out; just because “that’s the way it was back then” doesn’t make it right. She needs to take ownership of what happened in her life, but to do so, she needs those before her to admit it too.
For someone who has experienced such a scenario in his own family circle, it is galling to see the symmetry of how specific generations chose to cope with or accept what was happening. If this has been happening for multiple generations, it becomes the norm, so to be angry and try to talk about it to the family circle is almost as bad as the act itself. You have to accept it and move on, which is soul-shuddering to think about. Sweeping such events under a rug is impossible. However families do it, they have to.
What invests you further into Relative is Arcabasso Smith herself. She needs her family to admit what happened was wrong, so she can finally try and move on from her own abuse, so when she tries to have these difficult, excruciatingly awkward conversations, you feel for her. You see the tension wrapped around her as she tries to broach the subject with her grandmother, the struggles to get out the words that feel like she had practised hundreds of times beforehand.
She is front and centre in this film, and for it to work as amazingly as it does, she needed to be. If this simply told the story of the abuse, the secrets, and the complexity of it all via narration or talking heads, it may not have been as effective. The impact of seeing her have these discussions and her struggle makes everything feel so much more real. The intimacy of seeing the faces of a cousin, a mother, a grandmother feel for themselves and their family to her grabs you.
The other importance of her being front and centre in her own film is how much it feels like a therapy session for her (we even see her therapy sessions). To have these moments revealed to her, to allow her to get through her own trauma. This is important for her, but also for others who have or are currently in the same situation and are not sure what to do, how to navigate a world where the respect from their male family members is non-existent.
The juxtaposition between these difficult conversations with the home-video footage is harrowing. We see a family acting up for the camera, having the best of times. Everyone cares and enjoys their lives; all the while, the women in the family know what has not only happened to them by the same men dancing and acting the goof but what could possibly be happening to their daughters. As Tracey’s cousin states at the beginning of Relative, everyone is pretending, lying about how happy their family is.
However, delve a little deeper into these videos; you see the grabbing and kissing as clear as day. Even the resistance from the girls and women who are forced into these situations, all for the men to feel they are having “ a good time”. It horrifies you to see it, to see how the men saw nothing wrong with what they were doing. By getting away with it, it spreads like a virus around the males, grandfathers, uncles, and cousins. If a young boy sees no consequences to wrong actions by his family, then why wouldn’t they copy them when he is of age? If no one speaks up about the abuse, how are the girls to realise how wrong it is? Never-ending vicious cycles.
Relative doesn’t take any prisoners, yet it isn’t as invested in demonising everyone wholesale. There is so much to unravel and think about in instances of multigenerational abuse that by just saying things like how if it happened to you, you should have made sure it didn’t happen to me. Then, of course, the dream scenario is that it is true and the next generation can live happier lives. But it is never as easy as that; family is at the same time joyous as it is frustrating. We can be loyal to those we consider our blood; if one does wrong, it is difficult to cut ties and send them to the proper authorities. Arcabasso shows that here in spades.
Without a single shadow of a doubt, Relative is one of the films of the year; if you can get the opportunity to watch it, do so. It is a tough watch at times, yet unimaginably essential viewing. Impossible to forget.
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