Alston screens ‘Family Name,” explores southern family identity
By Lauren Dowling
Published on Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Homosexuality, racism, religion, murder -- it seems as if Macky Alston has never found a touchy subject he didn't like.
After attending the screening and discussion of his award-winning documentary "Family Name" (1997) at the Tucker Foundation, however, it becomes clear that Alston's subject matter is chosen precisely for the discomfort it evokes.
In "Family Name," Alston returns home to the deep south from New York City to examine a quandary that has haunted him since his youth -- the relationship between black and white Alstons in the area.
"Is something a secret if everyone knows it but nobody talks about it?" Alton asks in the film.
Clearly racism was a source of unease in his hometown of Durham, N.C., and Alston was completely aware of the stigma associated with this topic.
"I think the fascinating thing is that those things that we have never talked about, those things that we are taught not to talk about, breed a lot of fear," Alston wrote on the documentary's website.
Winner of the 1997 Sundance Freedom of Expression Award, "Family Name" is certainly more a dark horse than a flashy fan favorite. Filmed on 16 mm film with sparse funds gathered from small southern foundations and a few New York City bigwigs, the filmmaking process was clearly a work of personal rather than commercial importance.
The subject of race is not the only suppressed issue for Alston and his family. Asked to mask his homosexuality while visiting his hometown, Alston works to honor his family's wishes -- all the while aiming to break other social molds with his film.
"It's a strange dance -- what we tell each other and what we don't," Alston comments in his documentary's candid commentary. "I make films in order to make myself do things I would not otherwise do," he continued.
A touching and inspiring story, "Family Name" is 80 minutes of exposition and honesty regarding the human condition. Simultaneously witty and severe, the film approaches its arduous subject with a youthful spirit and charm that continuously engages and disarms its audience.
Intended to spur conversation, the documentary succeeds brilliantly, moving the viewer to examine his own social views and evaluate his conscience.
"His movies are a helpful way to engage questions that we often find difficult," Kurt Nelson, the multi-faith adviser at the Tucker Foundation said. "The films feature controversial topics dealt with in personable ways."
In "Family Name" it becomes apparent that the discomfort associated with such "controversial" issues is only detrimental to their resolution.
"I think that you see in the film that there are certainly ways of surviving the conversation. And life after that conversation is very, very, very interesting," Alston said on the website.
This film, however, is not the only Alston documentary to be screened at Dartmouth this week.
"Questioning Faith" (2002), the tale of faith found in times of hardship, was screened on Monday, Feb. 4, in the Tucker Foundation. Filmed with the same sensitivity and perception as "Family Name," the film's website claims that it "prepares people for crisis in their lives; provides a tool for conversation around crisis and faith in a non-partial, non-proselytizing forum; and inspires a sense of respect for people with a range of religious views as they try to understand their lives."
Similarly, "The Killer Within" (2006) the most recent of Alston's films to be screened at Dartmouth, will be shown Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 4 p.m. at the Tucker Foundation. A fascinating examination of hidden pasts, the film explores a father and professor's admission of both the murder of his college roommate and his plan to murder 250 of his other classmates. A heart-wrenching tale of schoolyard bullies, family bonds, and loyalty, "The Killer Within" is a poignant testament to and exploration of crimes of the heart.
Promising to be both heartwarming and candid, lighthearted and thought provoking, Macky Alston's documentaries provide an opportunity for Dartmouth students to witness humanity at its most honest and vulnerable.
"Life is stranger than fiction," Alston said, and after viewing one of his documentaries, it seems as if he said it best.
"Family Name" will be screened in its entirety on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m. in Silsby Hall.