Sixteen years ago, Rick Minnich’s father mysteriously lost his memory after a minor car accident. Minnich teamed up with Matt Sweetwood, a fellow Berlin-based American filmmaker, and returned to his native California to capture his father’s story – and found that it was odder than he could possibly have imagined.
Why did you decide to make a documentary about your dad?
Rick Minnich: I couldn’t ignore the fact that something very strange had happened in my family. Because I made films, it was an obvious choice to make a film about it. When I started out, I was still hoping to make a film about his miraculous recovery: how he had put his life back together over many years, how he had learned to read and write all over again, and how he got better physically. And then, when I really started making the film, he backed out. He didn’t really say why. It took on a whole different dimension. We started filming with the rest of my family and it became a completely different film.
How did Matt become involved?
Matt Sweetwood: We had worked together before. I didn’t really know much about this project with his dad – he kept it secret. Or at least he didn’t talk about much. It was his decision that it would be good to have someone on his side. When he presented it to me, I was sort of blown away. I don’t really know if I’m a great listener, but that project required a lot of sitting and soaking in the whole story. I was like a big sponge.
Was it good to have the balance of an outsider’s perspective in such a personal project?
MS: Yes, someone who could look at it from the outside: that was my job. In retrospect, it was good for him to have someone who could say, “Well this is how I would actually turn the story into a film.” I wrote a script, a storyline. That was my first attempt to make sense of the story. It began to take the shape of a crime story. It seemed like an investigation. That was the big decision we had to make: is it a story about his dad’s recovery or is it an investigation? How much do you want to know? The more you find out in a crime story – every time you turn over one thing or open one door, it leads somewhere else. That’s a totally different journey than the one where you just collect memories.
So it wasn’t your intention to make a crime story?
RM: That kind of happened along the way because we made some discoveries live on camera that were kind of shocking. The scene with my mother was the very first scene we filmed. She finds this letter written by my father and asks, “How could he have written this?” She just got it out of the box and started reading it while we were filming. And it made us think, maybe something else is going on here. It set the tone for the whole film, and how we shot the rest of the film – the whole approach really.
MS: It was proof enough for me that this was something unresolved. For me, it was that feeling that unsettledness had to carry on throughout the whole film.
Was it difficult to film something so personal?
RM: Oh, absolutely. What helped is that everyone in my family wanted to talk. I didn’t have to do any convincing. The only one who didn’t want to be filmed was my uncle, my father’s older brother. He didn’t want to talk about my father and his wife on camera. At that tim, he was living in the same town as them and they had asked him not to talk to me about them. They kind of silenced him.
Did the filming create tension within the family?
MS: It created some sort of tension in the sense that stuff comes out and people start getting emotional. They go into a different mode. His sister and stepsister were a little worried about Rick because they had already gone through all that stuff, having lived nearby. Rick visited, but never had to live with the situation on a daily basis. His stepbrothers were already at a point of getting some sort of closure. And then Rick comes along and, for some of them, starts opening wounds that had already healed over time.
Did you reach any kind of conclusion about your dad’s situation?
RM: When we started, I had what now seems to be a kind of naive notion that I was going to find this black and white answer, that there was a single answer that was going to be hidden in some box that I was going to open on the way. It didn’t happen. And that made me feel like we had to keep filming, we have to keep editing. Something’s going to click. Why isn’t it clicking? And at some point I just realised that there isn’t a clear answer. It’s got to stay that way and the feeling of the film needs to convey that that’s just the way life is. There aren’t always these clear-cut answers that we hope for and it’s really about coming to grips with the situation.
So we had this challenge in that we knew we had a film that doesn’t have a clear answer. That was pretty tricky, and it’s turned out that there are viewers who were really disappointed by the end, but there were other people who say that that’s the only way it could be.
Was making the film ultimately a cathartic experience?
RM: I kept expecting there to be this moment of relief, for something to click and then a light would go on, and that never happened. It’s been more of a slow process of coming to terms with it. A lot of that process has been showing the film publicly, talking with audiences about it. I’ve gotten to travel a lot with the film. It’s played on every continent around the world. I was in China last year and in Brazil and all over Europe, and people are just really touched by it. It completely crosses national borders and I always wanted to make a film that had that. Matt and I did it this time. That’s been very satisfying.
FORGETTING DAD | Directed by Rick Minnich, Matt Sweetwood (Germany, 2009)