Thy Father’s Chair

Thumb thy fathers chair 2017

"The Torah wants everything to be clean, but unfortunately we veered from it." These words are spoken by Avraham, an elderly Orthodox man living with his twin brother in the family home in Brooklyn. How far the twins—Avraham and Shraga—have "veered" from cleanliness is obvious: objects tower to the ceiling in every room, kitty litter coats the floor, and years-old leftovers erupt with white fur in the freezer. The situation is so dire that the upstairs tenant has complained, and the brothers are threatened with losing the house. The clean-up operation—a massive project carried out by a company called Home Clean Home—is the subject of Antonio Tibaldi and Alex Lora’s gentle and emotionally stressful  documentary "Thy Father’s Chair."

Broken up into eight small parts (one for each day of the cleanup), "Thy Father’s Chair"—filmed entirely handheld—focuses mainly on the cleanup, and how that cleanup meets resistance from the brothers. The house is in such terrible condition it comes as a shock when the upstairs tenant says that just 10 years ago—before the brothers’ parents died—the house was in fine condition.

The crew from Home Clean Home, wearing masks and white protective suits, shovel things into giant trash bags, as Avraham hovers nearby. Shraga shows up briefly, can’t take the stress, and leaves again. Avraham sits collapsed in a chair, as people sweep things up around him. The head of the cleaning crew works with Avraham, counseling him, pushing him to make decisions. One of the most striking aspects of "Thy Father’s Chair" is the positive group dynamic of the crew: they work their butts off, they crack jokes, but they do not shame the brothers. If Avraham says he wants to keep something, they listen to the reasons. The reasons may be delusional (why does he need to keep a years-obsolete computer keyboard?), but they at least listen, and then reiterate why the thing must go. It’s an emotional life-coaching kind of process as much as it is a cleaning process.

The camera stays close to the identical faces of Avraham and Shraga. There’s a gentle intimacy to the approach. The film could have felt voyeuristic, or, worse, mean-spirited. Neither man has an explanation for why they let the house get like this. It’s probably a host of intersecting factors, with unmanaged mental illness and alcoholism (the house is littered with empty wine bottles) the primary candidates. It’s interesting to note that even with all of the chaos in the house, the brothers’ religious books are lined up neatly on a shelf, easily accessible to them.

Hoarding as a recognized "thing" went mainstream with A&E’s hit series "Hoarders" airing in 2009, although we’ve all probably known a hoarder or two in our lives. The website Squalor Survivors was established in 2001, long before the A&E series aired, as a supportive space for those climbing out of their own trash. Documentaries like "Grey Gardens" or, more recently, "Excavating Taylor Mead," are not explicitly about hoarding, although it’s everywhere implicit. Whatever the psychological reasons for hoarding, and there are many, the panic experienced by the "hoarder" when confronted with throwing anything out, no matter how small, is intense. It’s as though the cleanup crew is trying to destroy memory itself. Avraham and Shruga, their arms covered with sores, stutter with anxiety, clutching random objects buried for years.

Some interesting things start to happen in "Thy Father’s Chair" as the cleaners make headway, room by room. Old photos are unearthed, an old religious scroll one of the brothers ordered is found … objects that once mattered to these men become accessible to them again. Avraham unrolls the scroll and starts telling everyone what it is, what it signifies, what it means. It’s almost as though they get to reclaim the part of themselves buried so long under the trash. "Thy Father’s Chair" is dedicated to Chantal Akerman, a thought-provoking and clarifying choice: one thinks of the kitchens, the hallways, the dining room tables and utensils, that populate her films, her obsession with the massiveness of life experienced within four cramped walls.

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