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Film

‘The Woodmans’ a Powerful Portrait of an Artist Family

Documentaries following families are almost guarantees of drama; a family of artists, doubly so. Calling on the universality of dysfunctional kin, The Woodmans, premiering tonight at the Northwest Film Forum, is the dissection of its titular unit and...

Documentaries following families are almost guarantees of drama; a family of artists, doubly so. Calling on the universality of dysfunctional kin, The Woodmans, premiering tonight at the Northwest Film Forum, is the dissection of its titular unit and centers around wunderkind daughter Francesca, a photographer known both for her haunting photographs and suicide at age 22. Ostensibly the portrait of a family, The Woodmans‘ focus is in actuality much wider, a well-made meditation on family, art, dedication, fame and depression.

Despite the eerie quality of her photos—which often feature its photographer nude and doubling as model—Francesca’s fame has no doubt been fueled by her death. The mythology of an artist died young, especially one who commits suicide, still stokes audience fascination, and there is an almost tangible tension between Francesca’s parents and the success of their daughter. Early in the film, father George—who gifted Francesca her first camera—says that when his daughter began photographing in her teens, he feared it would make his art “look stupid.” After instilling an almost iron-fisted value of art in their offspring, Francesca’s parents are forced to deal with their progeny doubling as art-world competition, a confliction that makes them look equal parts petty and vulnerable.

As the film progresses, cutting Francesca’s emotional breakdown with her mother’s present-day preparation for a ceramics show, it becomes increasingly difficult to jump aboard with Ma and Pa Woodman’s gung-ho ideas about creating art. “Our children learned that art is a very high priority,” says George. “You don’t go off and do hobbies on Sunday or something like that: you make art.” This made a dedicated photographer of Francesca, but one has to wonder if this devotion is sustainable for pleb artists who have to, you know, earn a living. George briefly mentions his WASP-y New England upbringing, off-handedly saying his parents were “financially supportive,” and the Woodmans’ incessant discussion of their lack of mainstream success coupled with footage of their second home in Italy is unsettling. It’s as if they haven’t acknowledged—or perhaps actively deny—that such dedication to art is a luxury.

Of course, the Woodmans’ flaws are not the same as The Woodmans‘ flaws. Director C. Scott Willis has packed a complex and powerful story into 82 minutes, creating the rare documentary that requires no previous knowledge of its subjects, save for an interest human drama.


Northwest Film Forum, 7 & 9 p.m.

1515 12th Ave. 

Photo by Francesca Woodman, courtesy of the Northwest Film Forum. 

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