Finding 'Jewels' Among Garbage in 'Thy Father's Chair'

Feb 26, 2016

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest. Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes. 

From afar, "Thy Father's Chair" seems to follows the apparent television mantra: "Hoarders makes for great entertainment." But even as the first scenes unfold, it's clear that this is not the average messy house story. The observational documentary follows a pair of adult Orthodox Jewish twins, who are forced to clean up their family's Brooklyn home after the death of their parents. However, as they dig through the clutter and garbage, the twins and the filmmakers delve into questions about faith, rules, pain and letting go.

Credit Antonio Tibaldi

I spoke with co-directors Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora about their film.

O'Brien: Can you tell me how your idea of the film changed from the very beginning when you meet the brothers to the end of production? Because from the outside it looks like it's about hoarding and cleaning up this terribly messy house, but obviously it changes a lot right?         

Tibaldi: I knew from the beginning that the film couldn't be about cleaning. It's not about how do you clean a house from chaos to very clean. That's ultimately very uninteresting. And I knew that if people have lived that way for a very long time and accumulated a lot of things and they were very smart people, you would say okay they have a problem. But then obviously letting go of this amount of things, which we may say most of it is garbage, but obviously to them it isn't otherwise it wouldn't be there. It's going to be painful and difficult and ultimately whenever you are dealing with resistance and obstacles there is potential for dramaturgy and where that leads us, what do we discover in that process is what we were careful with. And the film became really about things that were buried in the footage, just like if you will the jewels are buried in that detritus and garbage, there is a lot of humanity there and you just have to be patient and find it.

O'Brien: I think that shows up when you are watching the film because a lot of the biggest moments are really subtle and you don't really realize until the end of the film that those were the most important things you saw. So obviously you're filming a house of hoarders, so you can tell in the film it was very tight in there, can you tell me what it was like filming in those kinds of conditions?

Tibaldi: Yes, the shooting was very, very difficult. Physically it was difficult because you have no place to be and also you're doing sync sound, so now if I do this it interrupts our soundtrack, well there, if I would walk, if I would move, I would crunch, because there was stuff everywhere especially the first few days. So once I was positioned somewhere I couldn't move literally. So it really limits you. And then I have enough experience to say well first of all it's going to get better because they're going to start to get this stuff out and number two I will actually figure out how to shoot this. But it became very hard on an emotional level because what I was aware that was happening is that I was actually witnessing pain. It's painful to let go of these things. And it's painful to have strangers come in dressed up in suits and go through every single possession of yours and so it's a huge invasion of your privacy. And it's also just painful to let go because everything has meaning. Every object is connected to a memory, to something. And you get used to the surroundings being in a certain way. Even if we think they are unlivable, to them they are very livable. So it was hard."

Alex Lora joined the project after Tibaldi had finished filming the cleaning process, so his main role was in post-production. However, Lora and Tibaldi both went back to check on the progress of the brothers, and Lora was able to meet both the brothers and the head of the cleaning crew, who becomes a key figure in the film. 

Lora: The first time I was there and I met him was strange because in a way I felt like I really knew them because of all the footage you've seen of this person, these people over and over and over. And then you go there and realize that they don't know you and you don't really know them and I was very shocked because even in the movie they seem very articulated and very capable and once I was there, especially one of the brothers I felt there was something that was not quite there, that there was a real problem, something that I didn't feel that much in the film.