Offering first-hand exploration into the complexity of sexual abuse is one of the most vital ways that victims and their supporters can break the cycle and implement lasting change. Up-and-coming filmmaker, Tracey Arcabasso Smith is doing just that by sharing her own personal, intimate story about surviving abuse within her family, and examining the spaces in between judgment and verdict, shame and blame, and trauma and loyalty in her new documentary, ‘Relative.’ She’s finally breaking the silence within her family to discuss the widespread issue, which transcends religion, gender and socio-economic status, in the movie.
Smith made her feature film directorial and producing debuts on the project. ‘Relative’ screened this past Sunday, November 6 at the New Orleans Film Festival at the city’s Broad Theater, and will also be screening as part of the festival’s virtual program until this Sunday, November 13.
‘Relative’ unravels a complex tapestry of vulnerability, shame and love, as Smith discovers a pervasive history of multi-generational sexual abuse in her Italian-American family. As decades of secrets, home movies and long-avoided conversations surface, a family bound by loyalty and tradition forges a new path forward.
Smith generously took the time last weekend during the New Orleans Film Festival to talk about helming and producing ‘Relative’ during an exclusive interview at The Broad Theater before the feature’s screening. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that she made the documentary in part to help her clarify her memories about her own experiences of being a victim of abuse as a child, and share how the effects of her trauma influence her relationships with her titular relatives. She also mentioned that she appreciates that the project screened at several festivals, including the New Orleans Film Festival, as she hopes the movie helps break the silence about abuse within families.
The conversation began with Smith explaining what inspired her to make ‘Relative.’ “It felt like a story that needed to be told. As I was having more and more conversations, it felt necessary to keep filming and recording. Part of recounting and moving through any history of sexual abuse is memories getting blurry, so part of my struggle was holding onto what actually happened and the weight of it all. So that inspired me to keep filming,” she shared.
In the film, the director conducted candid interviews about multi-generational sexual abuse with members of her family. She delved into how she secured the interviews for the documentary, and if her relatives were hesitant about speaking with her. “There was a lot of hesitation at first. But what started to happen was in the conversations, you feel everything unfolding. I started to notice the relationships went deeper because of the conversations. There was more understanding and compassion, and I think they felt that, too.”
Smith then shared what her experience was like of making her feature film directorial debut on ‘Relative,’ and how she approached helming the project. She admitted the experience “was hard. To be present for the emotional complications and complexities of the conversations, and be somewhat aware of what I was trying to capture, I had to put a lot of trust into the DP (Director of Photography, Topaz Adizes).
“He’s a close friend of mine, and almost like a brother to me. So he knew what I was going for, and everyone trusted him. When I had the camera myself, there were times that I couldn’t break the moment to fix the framing,” the filmmaker noted. “But it all worked out in the end, even though there are some frames that are off. But as long as we were capturing the essence of the importance of the conversation,” she embraced the camerawork that’s included in the movie.
Further discussing how she wanted to frame the conversations in
‘Relative,’ Smith added: “Topaz and I worked together a lot on commercial work. So we already had this shared language and understanding of each other. So there wasn’t a lot of dictating how to frame; it was more so, do what you do. He’s really great at capturing the intimacy of these conversations, and he was the perfect hand to be with us along the way.”
Besides the interviews with her relatives, the filmmaker was also interested in including the home movies from, and pictures of, her family throughout the documentary. “That developed over time as I started to find and go through my grandmother’s home footage and movies. I then started realizing that that was going to be a part of the fabric of the film,” she shared.
“What we tried to do was essentially edit in a way that felt like the experience of abuse, which is fragmented and not always linear and sometimes blurry. So we used the archival footage and home movies as sort of a tapestry of color to move in and out of these intense conversations,” Smith explained. “We would go to the past and then come back to the present, and we would weave in and out in a way that’s representative of what it feels like to be a victim of this.”
Further speaking about putting the final version of the film together, the director then delved into her experience was like working with ‘Relative’s editors, Natasha Mottola, Ian Olds and Jeremy Stulberg, to create the final version of the project. “The editors were essential parts of the filmmaking process. At times, being in, and directing, the film made it hard to maintain the clarity I needed to tell the best story, so they really helped me developt the artful language of the film.
“Also, my producer Jenya (James) came in towards the end, when we thought we were locked, and really went through all of the footage. She said, ‘We have to use some of this and that.’ So she continued to look at the footage and knew how we could use it, but not in a way that was unnecessary. We were trying to be very intentional with it that linked it to the scene or conversation before it,” Smith added.
Further speaking about the producing side of making the documentary, Smith then delved into how she also served as one of its producers, and how involves she was throughout the production. “I was pretty involved in it. This was a tiny team, and Laura Poitras was our producer, but she was also working on other things and making her own film. So she could only be as present on a limited basis on our film,” she shared.
“Everyone would lean in when others couldn’t, so there was always someone present who was helping carry it forward. But I had to do a lot of digging and pushing, just because of the nature of independent film,” the filmmaker added.
‘Relative’ is now playing at the New Orleans Film Festival, after it played at several other film festivals, including Hot Docs, Raindance and the Nashville Film Festival. Smith then shared what it mean to her that the movie is playing on the festival circuit, particularly at the New Orleans Film Festival.
“It’s great being able to go to these film festivals and see these types of stories because they are so different, complex and nuanced. So the more exposure they get, they more they can touch different people,” the helmer noted.
“So that’s the point of going to all of these festivals, especially for this film. It’s about breaking the silence, and hopefully inspiring other people to do the same,” Smith concluded.