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MARCH 29, 2009   

Family films

Today was the final day of the Cleveland International Film Festival, our town's annual orgy of thought-provoking films from around the world. Two of the three films I saw were at their core about families, although neither was billed that way.

Paradise in Pasadena

Jules Dervaes in his gardenHomegrown follows the Dervaes family as they live and work in their urban family homestead in Pasadena, California. Inspired—but seemingly not compelled—by their father's vision of a nearly self-sufficient lifestyle, two sisters and a brother run a farm, a produce business, an educational center and a website devoted to urban homesteading.

The family's life seems part hippie, part Amish and part California, although the concessions to modern American life are few and far between. Netflix, a cordless drill and a truck run on homemade bio-diesel are about as "normal" as they get. Yet the family seems extraordinarily peaceful and content with their demanding life because it rewards them with great food and a feeling of accomplishment and independence.

For people living their lives in a radically different way, the Dervaes family seems almost ordinary. They don't act as if they are making huge sacrifices or unusual accomplishments. They clearly have decided to do things differently, but you get the feeling that you could do it too, if you made similar decisions. Of course it helps if you live in California where you can grow things year-round. The Dervaes would have a tough go of it during Cleveland winters.

This New York Times video gives you a good introduction to the family and their life.

I'd also recommend you check out the family's YouTube channel and their website, PathToFreedom.com

Purgatory in Philadelphia

Isaiah and Julia ZagarNearly a mirror-image to the father in Homegrown, the artist/husband/father at the core of In A Dream nearly destroys himself and his family in pursuit of his artistic vision. In a stunningly candid film, Jerimiah Zagar follows his father Isaiah, mother Julia and brother Ezechial as they battle their own demons together and separately.

It's hard to not compare the Zagars with the Dervaes family, and the comparison is a harsh one. Both families lives are largely shaped by their fathers, but one vision leads to an urban Eden while the other results in a fantasmagoric Purgatory in Philadelphia .

Isaiah Zagar has spent much of his life covering entire buildings, floor to ceiling, with mosaic murals. The work itself is staggeringly inventive and ambitious—seems worth a trip to Philadelphia just to see it.

But what the film shows—painfully at times—is how Isaiah pours his entire life into the work, spreading himself and his family naked for the world to see. He seems to hold nothing back.

It's scary to see how the immense passion that transforms ordinary warehouses into sparkling labyrinths of color and shape seems to demand a self-absorption that nearly destroys the family.

Still, this is a love story filled with joy and beauty and sacrifice, with a happy ending—I think.

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2009 MARCH