Captured on a camera phone as it happened, David Quint's debut documentary Father Unknown is the true story of a man’s struggle to face the emptiness he carries inside. Disconnected from the people closest to him and haunted by the secrecy in his family, he records his desperate search for connection on a journey with the father he’s never truly known. Father Unknown was an official selection at the 2014 Starz Denver Film Festival, the 2015 Omaha Film Festival, and the 2015 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, and was also the recipient of the Audience Choice Award at the Lifetree Film Fest 2015. To find out more about the film, as well as how to watch it, visit fatherunknown.com.
Jeffrey Peterson: Your film depicts the discovery process, but did you find unexpected discoveries during the filmmaking process and/or editing of the film, and what about now, after your most recent screening and even the award streak?
David Quint: The most important outcome that came from the process of making Father Unknown was my discovery of how much pain I had been carrying inside that I had buried for so long: pain from my childhood, pain about my father, his childhood, and all of the ways that those things affected relationships in our family. I never imagined that trying to understand his story would eventually lead me back to my own. It took years of deep personal examination to be able to realize and accept this.
Now with the film complete and screening, I am continually blown away by the response from audiences. After seeing the film, people in the audience share incredible things from their own lives with my father and me. The process of traveling across the country and sharing our story is healing and transformative. I never could have imagined such an incredible outcome in telling our story.
Incredible in multiple ways I assume. I listened to an interview you conducted previously, so I’m slightly intimidated to probe even more, but were you trying to make a film? Seems like it would be emotionally draining.
I never intended or expected it to be a film. Even to make a doc, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but you do have some sense of what your subject is about, you have a kernel of sorts. I just didn’t have any blueprint. The discovery took place upon coming home, looking through recordings, and thinking about the experience. Then I had to determine how much I captured. I knew there were some incredible moments, but I didn’t really see my own relationship to them for quite some time, the pieces that were needed to tell the story. So everything was an attempt to dig into the question What is this story really about? Editing was a journey in itself, especially since we probably made fifty complete re-edits. For a long time, I didn’t think that this story had much to do with me. There was even a moment after all the early behind-the-scenes work was done, when someone at an early screening asked, “Why did this matter to you?” I didn’t have an answer then.
So what was your motivation for filming, especially with a phone? Was this about frugality, intimacy, flexibility?
I never intended to make a film with a camera phone. Because this story had remained unspoken in my family for so many years, I think I was desperately attempting to prove that something was wrong even though it couldn’t really be seen. When my father and I set out on our journey, something deep inside of me knew that I had to record everything that happened. I had no idea what we would find. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the camera phone was an emotional “buffer” between my father and me: something in between us that allowed me to not have to feel the full intensity of us being together as a father and son. We have come a long way since then and today have a deep connection with one another that we both immensely appreciate.
You previously mentioned that when you recorded all of this footage, you went back and forth between filmmaker and son. You also mentioned that filmmakers are trained to be invisible, no feelings or motives, but how did your family approach being documented?
I never really asked anyone in my family about it. I started documenting these events years before my father and I went on our trip. When my Grandmother passed and left a house full of belongings, I took a camera and photographed the search through what was left behind. Some of those photos are in the film. Later, I recorded some of the difficult conversations with my father. During one of these, my mother found the camera while it was recording and turned it off. In hindsight, I see that I was so angry, so hurt, that I felt like using the camera was justified. By the time my father and I headed to Switzerland, he knew I was recording everything that I could. It was kind of an unspoken agreement. It was almost as if the camera numbed the situation, its anger, pain, and intensity.
You chose to translate many conversations that were not in English. How do you think translation worked as a subtle theme of the film? Did you sense that you had to translate your father’s past? Maybe he needed to translate his pain?
Wow—what a great question! The language is so incredibly important. We worked very hard on translations, as well as the voice-over in the film. One way to define translation is “a rendering of meaning.” So much understanding unfolds in Father Unknown. Layers upon layers of meaning reveal themselves because of this journey of seeking answers. This was certainly true for us, and I believe that deeper meanings can be found when anyone undertakes a brave journey in their life.
Early in the film, Urban, your father, mentions that he used the words “uncle” and “aunt” without really knowing their meaning when he was younger. What did you learn about language through the film? Do you view it as a vessel or a platform?
Language is one of the primary tools that human beings use to connect with one another and to convey meaning. But when my father was a boy, he was given very little in terms of language, context, and meaning. For much of my father’s life, I think he struggled to understand what was actually happening to him, what it meant, how to find words to express what happened, and how he felt about it.
What did you learn about memory and nature, specifically the power of environment, during your journey? After entering Switzerland, you share with the audience that your father was a life science teacher. Even as he enters his orphanage, he can’t help but note the natural environment.
There is a huge difference between our minds and our hearts. Thinking about something on an intellectual level is not the same thing as living it and feeling it. Being back at the orphanage was a visceral experience for my father—the way things looked, sounded, and smelled. His connection to nature so clearly started as a boy in the orphanage. He once told me that he loves nature because you don’t need to understand anything else to be able to connect to it. At its core, nature is an emotional experience. For a long time, I think it was easier for my father to connect with nature than with people. Ironically, it was through being a life science teacher that he became able to connect with people.
What was the specific catalyst for the trip? During the opening, your father is very distant and avoids confrontation, but a few moments later, you all are flying overseas.
I sent a desperate email to the castle in Switzerland where he had lived as a boy, thinking I would never hear anything back. Though they didn’t have much in the way of records about my father, they were able to connect us to Sepp, a man who remembered my father from when they had lived in the orphanage as boys together. Once we discovered another living, breathing person who had been in the same place at the same time, we knew we had to go.
But the memories brought up during the time overseas disrupt your father’s hold on reality. How do you explain this displacement?
I think that the return to the castle resurrected many traumatic memories for my dad. There were moments where he was overwhelmed by emotion and unable to speak. Sometimes, he seemed delighted, yet at other times he had an air of detachment, almost as if those memories and circumstances had happened to someone else. His memories often appeared fragmented, coming together only when the gaps were filled in by Sepp.
Yes, yes. It specifically reminds me of Joan Didion and her book The Year of Magical Thinking. She describes grief as a wave that hits the bereaved, leaves, and unpredictably returns again and again.
That definitely sounds similar. My father couldn’t avoid the grieving process. It seems inevitable, but at the time, no one knew. Grief and loss is definitely a part of the story, and I can see this idea of the wave, even personally. Every time I watch the movie or share it, I reenter that grief, and it ebbs and flows.
When my father went to sleep the first couple of nights, I think his subconscious mind tried to make sense of all the information he had just taken in: old memories—long buried, but now resurrected—as well as new information imparted by others and all the emotional experiences of the day. Unable to make sense of the turmoil of information and emotions, one scene shows him waking up in a dissociative state.
That scene seemed to be one of your father’s lowest nights. In the film, you advise him to go to sleep and think back on his earlier life in order to “reset the computer.” This connotes a robotic nature for me.
What I meant in that moment by suggesting he “reset the computer” was to try and see if he could fall asleep and find some relief from the intensity. When my father woke in the middle of the night screaming out, he seemed caught in an intense loop of emotions and confusion, much like waking from a nightmare. I was hoping that sleep and waking up fresh would help.
When my father repeatedly stated that he had been “dreaming a lot,” I don’t believe he was referring to literal dreams, but to all of the thoughts and feelings that were overloading him, which, because of their intensity, had a disorganized and dreamlike feel to them.
When he woke, his mind was so overwhelmed that the already-disjointed memories of the day were further compromised by his dissociative state, which affected his ability to retrieve the memories of his entire trip to that point.
The piece of paper your father finds in his mother’s basement, which he struggles to translate, seems to break the mold of his past, or at least what he thought his past was. Without revealing too much of the plot, what made this object so important?
Do you mean why did he bring that letter with him on the trip? Why did he save it? I tried to keep the moment realistic. My father didn’t know what it said. He saved it from his mother’s house and I wasn’t expecting it. We wanted the audience to feel it the same way. He saw numbers and recognized his name. According to my father, “I knew some money had been paid and I knew my name was there.” He found that letter in 2003 and didn’t tell anyone about it. In 2009, he stuck it in his backpack, brought it on the trip, and only chose to whip it out later on. It changed everything. If you follow the trail, it’s remarkable: why did he save that, from 1962? Why did his mother save it? She could have thrown it out! This is the lynchpin.
That moment confirmed for me that the film is a facsimile for a life. The film is not me and it’s not my father. I strive to be present and available when people share stories, but at the same time, it’s only a part. Sometimes I think art is better than real life even though both can be finite.
One of the interesting moments in the film for me is the scene where you father practices names, choosing to write one on his hand for later. What did you sense was going on then? Do you think that his past had taken up that much of his mental space, is this an issue of age, or is he merely so displaced that he can’t commit new memories?
Many people that have experienced trauma have their ability to remember important details affected when they’re in emotional states. My dad has always been like that. So I think writing a name on his hand is a coping mechanism, allowing him to access the information that he knows will be important when he’s pretty likely to be emotionally overwhelmed.
Do you ever plan on making another film like this?
I will never have the opportunity to make another film about my family that is a true story, recorded as it happened. And frankly, I wouldn’t want to make another film so profoundly personal. The intensity of the experience was at times overwhelming. It’s also changed our lives in unimaginable ways. If someone told me what would be required in order to figure out how to make this film, I wouldn’t have done it. It was heavy on multiple levels, emotional, physical…I kicked myself sometimes for not having some footage, yet it bothered me during screenings when audience members would say, “Why don’t you film you two talking or having another conversation?”
I know it’s dated and subjectively good, but the sacrifice almost reminds me of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and his literal sacrifice of the body.
The heaviness has definitely evolved. I’ve been spiritually challenged and yet extremely fulfilled at the same time, because the truth, even if it’s painful, is better than not knowing. There’s a lot of painful truth that’s revealed here. There’s also an authenticity to accepting the truth and how we got here. This is my bedrock. My childhood was the way it was. It's true for me, and the same is true for my dad and everyone else. We all have losses that can’t be replaced. We have to find a way to grieve and accept.