Some documentaries delve deeper into the personal lives of the subjects than initially intended, but few manage to feel as raw and intimate as a home movie. The Silk and the Flame, premiering in the Panorama Documentary section at this year’s Berlinale, is one such film. Despite using talking head interviews and various traditional documentary techniques, director Jordan Schiele’s film manages to capture an intimate portrait of family life in rural China, examining the bleakness and the tenderness of various family relationships at close range.
The primary focus of the documentary is Yao Shuo, a man who works in Beijing to raise money for his elderly parents and various siblings in a distant rural community. He has the respect of his family due to being a caring son, who puts the needs of his disabled parents (his mother is mute, and responsible for looking after his increasingly forgetful father) before his own. But this is proving to take its toll; Yao is gay, but hides the fact so as to not get cut off from vulnerable older people dependent on his care- he’s even come up with a ruse involving a lesbian friend, where they can pretend to be each other’s partners if their families ever ask.
Despite being helmed by an American director, The Silk and the Flame doesn’t feel like an “outsider’s perspective” on a distinctively Chinese family dynamic. Schiele’s presence is constantly there, and often referenced by older members of the family, but it feels respectful – even when showing moments when they are impaired by their disabilities, it never once threatens to veer close to exploitation. This is another reason why it feels like a home movie; the film is built around these relationships, depicting them with a raw honesty that’s devoid of any conventionally dramatic moments.
The black and white cinematography is also effective, evoking the sense that Yao’s home village is a place forgotten to time, especially compared to the city he now calls home. It often feels like a period piece due to the evocative combination of grainy visuals and the rustic setting – it’s genuinely surprising when, for example, Schiele is questioned about his views on Donald Trump, or Yao FaceTimes his “girlfriend”.
The Silk and the Flame is an intimate and highly specific story about one family, and the son responsible for holding it together from hundreds of miles away. It offers some insight into the life of a young gay man in a country where gay sex has yet to be decriminalised – but if you’re looking for a deeper examination of those themes, look elsewhere. This is a quietly affecting family drama first and foremost, with an emotional power that sneaks up on you in plain sight.