Film review: A Family Affair

So, I’ve just watched Angeliki Aristomenopolou’s documentary A Family Affair, about one particular branch of the Xylouris family, a Cretan family of musicians. Aristomenopolou’s film has the misfortune to have the same title as a considerably more easily-found-on-the-internet documentary, Tom Fassaert’s A Family Affair, which I haven’t seen and which this blog post isn’t about.

Ms Aristomenopolou’s film is — what’s the best way to put this? It’s not a great documentary, but it’s a wonderful document. It’s 90 minutes long, but feels a lot longer. I’m going to say that this is her fault. It’s certainly not the fault of her subjects, the family of Giorgos Xylouris and his wife Shelagh Xylouris-Hannan, together with their kids Nikos, Antonis and Apollonia, and Giorgos’s cranky father, also called Antonis, a legend of Cretan music, universally known as Psarantonis (this sort of means ‘Fish-antonis’; it’s a long story, and not as interesting as the music.) The Xylouris family came to fame in the 60s and 70s, when Antonis’s elder brother, also called Nikos, became a star of Greek music and a symbol of resistance to the military regime that ruled Greece for a good chunk of the late 60s and early 70s. Interestingly, the film does not mention the elder Nikos’s political significance at all, although it does tell you that he got famous.

The focus of the film is on the elder Nikos’s nephew Giorgos, a Cretan lute prodigy who has been a hard-working professional musician since he was 12. It follows him from gig to gig, workshop to workshop, country dance to country dance, as he plays the hell out of his lute and strives with all his considerable charm and charisma to pass the tradition on to those willing to receive it. This includes his own kids. The younger Nikos and Antonis, together with their teenage sister Apollonia, have spent half their lives in Australia because Giorgos fell in love with and married an Australian woman, Shelagh Hannan, who is now in the position of being the stoically resigned matriarch of this family of musicians. I could have done with hearing more from Shelagh about the widow-like quality of being married to a professional musician who, as soon as they got off the plane from Australia after being married, was tearing off to play a wedding. But Aristomenopolou tries to do a lot of things at once, one of them being to tell you something or other about the places where this music is being played by having lots of lovely shots of the Cretan landscape or Melbourne’s cityscape. Beautiful as these are, I could have used less of them. A lot less.

Let’s get to the good stuff. The best thing about this film, by far, is the music. Aristomenopolou’s camera catches Giorgos and his kids and other musical partners in many different contexts: public dances, concerts, recording studios, practice sessions, and the music is great. The younger family members, for all that they look like (and sound like, when they speak English) regular Australian young people, are clearly already steeped in the music and are keen to make it live on.

The hidden presence for the first two thirds of the film is Giorgos’s dad, Psarantonis, who is spoken of in reverent terms as being the real musical genius of the family. What comes across in the film is that, however brilliantly talented Psarantonis actually is, his family certainly defers him as the authority. And it’s here that the film is not only full of insight into the life of a musician, but also revealing about the nature of Greek families and Greek masculinity.

The most gripping sequence is when Apollonia has flown out to Australia to join her elder brothers, who are studying sound engineering, and Giorgos and Psarantonis fly out to do a short concert tour, one of which dates will feature all three generations on stage together. At the very beginning of the film, we have seen a sequence of shots of all the principal people: Giorgos, Psarantonis, the younger Nikos, the younger Antonis, and Apollonia. Over this was sung a quiet song with a haunting melody. When we get to the shot of Apollonia, it takes some time to realise that she’s the one who’s actually singing it; her affect is so low-key that it takes you a moment to notice that her lips are in sync with the singing you’re hearing.

Over an hour later in film time, the family convenes in Melbourne to have its only rehearsal for the concert they’re to give. It turns out that Giorgos’s children have never played with music with their grandfather, only with their dad; such is Psarantonis’s celebrity that he never seems to have seen fit to share musical experiences with his own grandchildren. They play a tune; it goes well. Then Giorgos suggests that Apollonia sing a song. She starts singing, but it’s her first time ever performing with her grandfather, and on film, at that. Being nervous, she fluffs a verse, and her dad points it out, but they get to the end anyway.

The song being over, Psarantonis turns to his son and says ‘She forgot the words.’ Giorgos goes into pro-musician mode and insists that it just needs a bit more work; they can print out the words, if they have to. Psarantonis is visibly unimpressed. They take a break, and Giorgos goes over to his daughter and starts running the song again, just him and her. She sings with more confidence, but while she’s doing so, her grandfather shambles into shot, walking up and down behind them. They keep performing, and Giorgos gives her more advice, but then Psarantonis waves an imperious arm and says ‘You’re over-thinking. Keep it simple,’ and throws out a few more gnomic statements, before wandering off again.

Apollonia watches him go, and then asks, ‘So, is it okay?’, meaning Am I doing this song in the concert, or what? She gets no reply, and buries her head in her hands, subsequently admitting how embarrassed she’d been to make a mistake in front of her grandfather.

In the concert itself, however, she sings the song beautifully, and Psarantonis can be seen rocking himself from side to side to her unaccompanied delivery of the end of it; what’s more, it goes down huge with the Melbourne audience, and she tells in voice-over of how it had been the best musical experience of her life. So it all seems to have worked out great.

But somehow, Aristomenopolou’s camera missed that. As often happens with filmmakers who aren’t in full control of their material, there’s an attempt here to do too many things at once. It’s as if Aristomenopolou thought that this film tells its own story, but decided not to tell it herself. The film feels like the best bits of the raw material for about four or five different films about these people, with Aristomenopolou unable to decide exactly which one she wanted to make, which I guess is why it feels like it’s much longer than it is. There’s no narration, which doesn’t help.

On the other hand, it has got me permanently interested in Cretan music, so there’s that. And I would rather have no narration, than a bad one. So on balance, I think Angeliki Aristomenopolou deserves the thanks of the world for such a bare-bones document of the life of a family of musicians. Here’s the trailer, or at any rate a trailer: some of the stuff in this trailer is not in the actual film. Thanks to the Edinburgh Greek Film Festival for letting me see this.

Film review: A Family Affair