Dutch documentary filmmaker Klaartje Quirjins has made a remarkable film, a documentary she has worked on for seventeen years that saw her record Dr Michael Maskowitz’ therapy sessions with world renowned freudian psychologist Dr Kirkland Vaughan. In the process Quirjins was compelled to turn the camera onto herself and her strained relationship with her mother and her non-existent relationship with her father, and try to understand how the death of her older sister at age six affected them and made them who they are.
This is a very personal film, how does it feel to now have something so personal out in the open for others to see?
It’s funny this was made just before the lockdown. It had it’s premiere at the documentary film festival and before that at a Dutch film festival, and normally you want to get as much attention for your film as possible. But in the Netherlands, for my mother in particular, I didn’t want too much attention. I made sure it premiered in very small cinemas during the festival – which is very small anyway. I choose not to go for the international festivals. So I was really keeping the audience away.
But, that was two years ago and so much has happened between me and my parents and we’r talking about it, and I feel England – this is the country I live in and where my daughters grew up – I don’t feel embarrassed, I see now how much it did to people to see it and recognise the story we’re telling and the image that I showed that I feel it’s not as personal. So I’m fine with it.
Despite it focussing on you as well as Maskowitz, there’s a universality. It’s so specific that it’s universal. I felt watching it “I can relate to that”, and the sort of things you two were going through.
What did you recognise?
Your relationship with your mum and dad. My parents are very similar – my mum likes to keep her emotions closed, and my dad is a little enigmatic. I think a lot of people have family secrets, or not secrets but things they don’t talk about. The specifics are different but the feelings and situations are universal.
I’m very happy that you say that, because that was always almost my motivation. In the end I wanted a kind of unconscious mood and atmosphere so that people could see their story. So, when you say that that’s the biggest compliment I can get, so I succeed. It’s almost a Freudian white canvas and people can project their stories. For me the film was bouncing back the stories to the audience to make them think about themselves, their families and their stories.
Have you found that during the process of making the film you understand your parents and your own children more? You talk in the film about not telling your children about a health scare so there’s this element of repeating behaviour, has that changed?
I think in a way it really broke the circle. My daughters saw the film, they were with me through this whole process, and I’m probably someone who really wants to talk and I was confronted with non-talking. I wanted to break that. That horrible moment where my mother doesn’t want to talk, that’s the moment you use a hammer to break something and I think in that sense everybody was there so it had an effect.
The most important thing was that I got to know my father more, and when my mother saw the film – I was so afraid for her, because everytime it’s opening this wound – but the funny thing is when she saw it she said “i now have a completely different opinion on your father because I didn’t realise how much grief was in him”. She always thought that she was the only one burying the grief and then she saw how it affected him and it changed her attitudes.
Also, after the film, they now on Sunday night go out for dinner. I feel they’ve gone through something so horrendous and horrific they need each other to heal. Maybe that’s the way forward. I had a discussion with the two of them and suddenly without crying we can talk about [my sister].
When you’re talking with the therapist Kirkland Vaughans he talks about how parents will try to hide their trauma from their children, and children will always pick up on it. Has that helped you communicate with your daughters?
I think Kirkland is such a charismatic therapist, and though I never watch my films after I’ve finished, but every time I listen to him I pick on something else he’s saying. It’s so incredible how talks and how he analyses – but that wasn’t your question. Has it changed? I try to be more open with my daughters, but they both have a different character. My oldest daughter when I try to talk with her says “oh you’re so nosey” and I’m not nosey, I just want to talk about things/ The other one is very open and shares everything. So It really depends, but what I do think, apart from what you say – which I don’t think is important – it’s what you do. So having them be a witness to the journey of making this film I really showed them what I do with my father and my mother. I think that has more impact than talking with them. It’s just how open you are with your wife or partner, that always has more impact. It’s more what you do than what you say.
There were a few moments that really stood out to me, things that crystallised what was so great about the documentary. One was when you were trying to get information out of your mum in front of your daughters and she just wouldn’t say anything then later when you spoke to your daughter she wouldn’t talk either. It felt awkward, like I was intruding on a private conversation between family members.
I understand that that conversation with my mother was very harsh, and cruel. But on the other hand as a filmmaker it was the heart of my film. It’s these moments of really having a problem communicating, that you try to avoid. You have no idea how much i tried to avoid making this film, it was an idea and then I got funding and I thought “oh god now I have to make it”. I was so avoiding the conversation with my mother, so every time I forced myself into a situation to do it, it was very uncomfortable.
Another moment was that your father, Kees, is kept as this enigmatic figure and that we’re not really shown him until the end of the film, and when we do meet him he’s kind of the polar opposite of your mother. He’s much more open, but when he opened his suitcase and there was a picture of your sister was deeply moving. You think someone might be elusive or able to move but your realise everyone just internalises everything.
I agree, it’s funny, I always looked at my father not really as a father because he wasn’t a father figure. He was such an unusual man, and I also think he might be a little bit on the spectrum. He’s very self absorbed, he’s a typical mathematician that he can get very into excited about a sum or obsessed about stamps. But never any emotional life, then suddenly you realise there is. Also, in my conversations now with my parents I think he is the one who is really open and can talk about it, more than my mother. Though my mother is more articulate. My connection with her is much stronger.
You never have an idea what is going on inside people.
You say within the film you’ve been working on this for seventeen years, now that’s it complete, do you feel there’s a weight off your shoulders and you can sigh with relief?
Oh yeah, definitely, but I don’t know what I do to myself. Before this I always enjoyed making my films, I would go to Africa, and it would be an adventure. I’d take my camera and just do it. With this I just started making this film with myself inside it and it felt like this big burden because it’s so personal. I had to go into my own memories and when you open a door then there’s another door and another. You have to go really deep inside you and your youth. It was at times confusing and difficult. It seems like now it’s a method.
My next film is about polarisation, I started making a film about the murder of Theo van Gogh (great-grandnephew of Vincent) the filmmaker, and I haven’t been living in the Netherlands, and I was so shocked that that could happen there. So to revisit this reconstruction of this death and murder, now I changed the whole film so it’s about polarisation – us and them. I had this conversation with this Moroccan-Dutch psychiatrist, I’m trying to really reconstruct both our lives. How you can grow up in the same place but with such different backgrounds. I was very privileged growing up, so now again I’m in that film, and again almost again my will, it comes from saying something original. It has to come from yourself.
Again it’s such a weight on my shoulders, and what can I say about polarisation.
That sounds fascinating.
I think the Netherlands will hate me, I’m very critical of the Dutch. They have such a talent of marketing themselves as very egalitarian and open minded but if you look from a different perspective it’s not that egalitarian and it’s not that open.
Your Mum and Dad will be released in Cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 29th April