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Moment of Humanity

Between Friends and Family
Director: Rick Dillwood • 67 min.
11/10, 4:30 p.m. • $10
Thalian Hall Black Box

PERSONAL AMBITION: Filmmaker Rick Dillwood documented a vital, evolving relationship with his lesbian neighbors as he donated sperm for them to start their own family. Courtesy photo

The definitions of “family” and “friends” typically have clear boundaries that don’t necessarily overlap, but a new documentary premiering at Cucalorus seeks to challenge that notion.

Directed, co-produced, and filmed by Rick Dillwood, “Between Friends and Family” documents the evolving relationship between Rick and his neighbors, Carey and Mel, a same-sex couple wishing to start a family together. Wanting a sperm donor they already know and trust, they enlist the help of Rick, who agrees. He’s hesitant at first, but as the action progresses, he comes to accept his role. The film spans three years and two children, and during that time, Rick grows obcessed and the audience watches the trio explore the grey area between friends and family (hence, the title).

It’s an intriguing concept for a documentary. The subject, the trials of same-sex adoption, is growing increasingly relevant as the visibility of homosexual couples looking to adopt increases.

The film also provides a much-needed look at the political challenges of being a same-sex couple in the generally conservative environment of North Carolina, especially after the debate over Proposition 8 four years ago. The film’s appeal, however, transcends strictly gender-related issues.

For starters, the cinematography is wonderful. The handheld, documentary-style shooting remains a great choice, in that it brings immediacy to the story and places the audience right there alongside the family. Dillwood also chose beautiful places to film; the exterior shots of the parks they go to, as well as Hawaii, are lovely.
Spliced throughout are intimate interviews where all the characters express what they’re feeling. The interviews seem essential to molding everyone, so at the end we get a full picture and feel as if we know each person. The camera is also present at several very human moments in the film. Dillwood captures pure, unfiltered emotion at its inception, especially during the adoption hearing and the miscarriage of their second child.

The film is highly self-aware, a fact added to by Dillwood’s constant narration. Just as it blurs the line between friends and family, Rick does so between filmmaker and subject. He comes across as an endearing, sensitive guy. My only criticism: At times the focus shifts more onto him, rather than Carey and Mel. However, it’s done so understandably, since it’s a very personal documentary.

encore chatted with director Dillwood more about the doc’s making.

encore (e): Tell us about your filmmaking history.
Rick Dillwood (RD): I started film school at UNC Greensboro in 2008. Prior to that, I had started making small, mostly silly projects on the weekends with friends. I also made a 15-minute documentary for an historic site where I used to volunteer in Durham, and even though it was in the style of Ken Burns (a far cry from where I am now), it got me interested in pursuing film more seriously.

e: What inspired you to make this film?
RD: While in school, I made a short, “How to Make a Heartbeat,” which screened at several festivals, including Frameline in San Francisco. It’s about the beginning of my relationship with Mel and Carey, the couple for whom I donated sperm. Audiences generally seemed to be interested in the subject matter of “Heartbeat,” so I decided to extend it to become a feature-length documentary.

e: Were there any specific challenges that this film posed?
RD: Though the personal nature of the documentary made the project a challenging one at times, making a film about current events proved to be even more complicated than I originally expected. Since I started making the film in the midst of the events, I was documenting and not after they had already occurred, the process of filmmaking became imbricated in the changing relationships I was attempting to record. As Carey points out in one of the final interviews, the film itself became a party involved in navigating the evolution of our dynamic, which was ultimately as helpful and rewarding as it was challenging.

e: What do you want the audience to take away from the film?
RD: When I first started the project with “Heartbeat,” I thought my goal was to make known donor arrangements more visible, since many families navigate donorship without many resources. Along the way, though, I realized the dynamic that Mel, Carey and I share is actually very specific. While our story might still serve as a resource for couples and their potential donors, it could also function on a more universal level of helping audiences to think about the nature of all relationships and how venturing out into undefined areas can ultimately be really hopeful and rewarding.

e: What are you currently working on?
RD: After spending three and a half years on “Between Friends & Family,” I was interested to experiment with a shorter form documentary, so Carrie Hart (associate producer of “Between” and the other half of my production company) and I are currently working on developing a web-based series called “KiQ” (short for “Keepin’ it Queer”), which explores the idea of queerness as it manifests in various cultural patterns and practices. We’re aiming to debut our first season in January 2013. I hope to eventually make other personal documentaries as well.

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