All in the Family

Jennifer Fox's intimate nine-hour saga, An American Love Story, continues the legacy of domestic documentaries

In these blockbuster days, it bears repeating that the aesthetic opposite of an overproduced action-adventure is that rare case of a filmmaker with a single, handheld camera recording what occurs in the real world. Even more rare is a verité documentary that's at once as intimate and epic as An American Love Story, which observes a year and a half in the lives of the four members of the Wilson-Sims family: blues musician Bill Sims, corporate manager Karen Wilson, and their daughters Cicily, age 19, and Chaney, age 12. As its title suggests, the film (screening at Walker Art Center this weekend as part of the Juneteenth Film Festival) is a representative portrait of love and family life in America. At the same time, owing to the persistence of racism in this country, and to the fact that Bill is a black man and Karen is a white woman, An American Love Story measures the particular distance between the family's multicultural ideals and the prejudices of the world at large.

The film's uncommonly candid examination of this dynamic starts with the fact that producer-director-cinematographer Jennifer Fox took up residence with her subjects in their Flushing, Queens, apartment, capturing more than 1,000 hours of footage on Hi-8 video. (The film runs nine hours and will be screened in three parts in advance of its airing this fall on PBS.)

"The nature of the Wilson-Sims family," says Fox on the phone from San Francisco, "is that they have always had somebody sleeping on the couch, whether it's a cousin or a friend or a down-and-out musician. Both Bill and Karen are products of very open homes, and they created an open-door policy for me as a filmmaker. To them, when I started filming, it was just one more person on the couch."

Living out Loud: The Wilson-Sims family (Bill, Chaney, Karen, and Cicily) of An American Love Story
Living out Loud: The Wilson-Sims family (Bill, Chaney, Karen, and Cicily) of An American Love Story

The result of what Fox calls "a delicate collaboration" with her subjects is a colorful weave of sociology and family drama--perhaps the truest successor in a quarter-century to PBS's groundbreaking study of the Loud clan, An American Family. Fox, a 39-year-old documentary veteran who made the award-winning Beirut: The Last Home Movie in 1987, originally conceived Love Story as a portrait of three multiracial American families, until working with the Wilson-Simses convinced her to focus exclusively on them, and at length. "I got three months into filming and realized, 'Oh, my God, this isn't a single film, it's episodic drama. In [the Wilson-Sims] family, and perhaps this is the case with all family life, there would be some event or trauma that they'd pull together to resolve. Then the issues would dissipate, but something else would always take their place."

Indeed, the film's nine hourlong episodes encompass everything from Karen's hysterectomy to Bill's bout with alcoholism, Cicily's college trip to Africa, and Chaney's first love, along with the racism, casual and otherwise, that the Wilson-Simses regularly encounter even in multicultural New York. For Fox, the fact that the family members not only consented to having such private details made public but have agreed to accompany her to screenings (including the Walker's) completes her original goals for the project. "When you see them in person, speaking after the film, you get it," Fox says. "The idea is to get people to say, 'Oh, this is a family like my family.'"

 

An American Love Story screens in three consecutive installments at Walker Art Center on Friday and Saturday at 7:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Director Jennifer Fox and members of the Wilson-Sims family will appear for discussion after the screenings; (612) 375-7622.

 
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