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It began as a son’s impulse to connect with a father he never really got a chance to know — by digging through the relics of his late dad’s life — and ultimately became a poignant example of overcoming generational family trauma through art.
Now, “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes,” directed by Charlie Tyrell and produced by Julie Baldassi for our Op-Docs series, is one of 10 films that have been shortlisted in the Documentary Short Subject category for the Oscars.
The film tells the story of how Charlie, then a 29-year-old filmmaker from Toronto, unearthed his father’s collections — including what he calls a “tacky and dated” stash of VHS pornography — in order to better understand the man who’d always been a mystery to him. In doing so, he discovered his father’s efforts to disrupt a cycle of abuse that had plagued their family for generations.
His father, Greg Tyrell, died of cancer in 2008, at 52, when Charlie was 20 and in his second year of film school.
“When my dad passed away, my mom — sound and levelheaded as always — told me to ‘use it’ one day,” Charlie says, “meaning to make sure I take the experience and apply it to my work.”
But there was a massive challenge: He was completely uncomfortable including himself in his work. (Until recently, Charlie’s “director’s head shot” was a black-and-white stick drawing of his face.) So he wasn’t exactly leaping in front of a camera to make a film about his fraught relationship with his deceased father.
Whatever. He’d give it a shot.
Charlie built a team of sound designers, producers, animators — many of whom had also lost people they were close to at a young age. Sharing their experiences buoyed them up while they were working on the project.
“Everyone brought their own sense of empathy to the project,” says Charlie. “They were all able to channel that sensitivity into their roles.”
They applied for several grants over two years as they worked to put together the concept for the film, but they were turned down. Charlie pressed on.
Finally, inspiration came to him. He watched Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” in which the filmmaker unearthed the paradoxes of her own family history after the untimely death of her mother, through the narratives of multiple relatives. Suddenly, Charlie felt more comfortable with documenting his own family’s story. He saw a way to grapple with deeply complicated personal topics without exploiting his family or tangoing with narcissism.
The result is an unconventionally creative nonfiction film in which art both reinforces and transcends its mission — even if most of the creative touches were borne of necessity.
The first order of business was to tackle his shyness. Charlie realized he could avoid the camera if he wrote the story of his life into a script and made someone else tell it.
“Writing it in the first person was really hindering the process, as it came with the dread that I might have to narrate,” he says. “We wrote it in the third person so I wouldn’t be nervous, got used to it and then liked it. It helped things sound more objective.”
One of Charlie’s executive producers knew David Wain, the director and co-writer of “Wet Hot American Summer,” and brought him on board to do the narration.
Since Charlie’s mother, brother and sister are also notoriously camera shy — and essential to the film — he interviewed them by phone. The result is surprisingly intimate and blends well with the film’s archival material.
Finding that material was hard, however. Though the film may seem like the product of a home where every moment was documented on VHS, Charlie’s family had very little of that material in their possession. He doesn’t recall ever having a video camera growing up. So most of the film is sourced from the home videos of members of their extended family.
For the stop-motion animation he intersperses throughout, Charlie decided to use only objects that belonged to his father (which also form the image of him that’s created in the film’s penultimate frames) — reinterpreting, from an unconventional angle, the very notion of a “documentary.”
For the 2D animation, the animator Martin MacPherson subtitled all phone and tape recorder audio in the handwriting of the people speaking (all credits are also in the signatures of those credited, including the ones for our team at Op-Docs). But it was an especially tough challenge to subtitle the dialogue of those who had passed away: Marty had to build a text alphabet for Charlie’s father and grandmother from old letters and birthday cards.
Working with Charlie, it became clear that he wasn’t making this film to tell us about his family. Rather, he was challenging us to think twice about the stories of our own.
You can watch “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes” at nytimes.com/dadporno. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Jan. 22.
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