Taking Stock is Ben Stillerman’s debut documentary as a director, and it’s a hell of an effort. Ostensibly about his father Clive’s small string of discount shops in South Africa, the story begins as an examination of a struggling business and quickly becomes a touching story about a son’s strained relationship with his father.
Clive is a white South African in his mid-50’s, so the immediate question becomes, what was the guy doing during Apartheid, both politically and as a businessman? Luckily, the elephant in the room is addressed rather quickly, and like almost everything else about Clive, the answer is complicated. Clive seems sincere in his assertion that he was profoundly against Apartheid, and his best friend was an activist in the movement to end it, so there’s no reason to suspect his sincerity. However, despite the majority of his employees being black, he’s never promoted a person of color to a management position. He’s yells at his employees, but he’s mean to everyone, including his white employees. So I suppose he treats people equally in that respect. In the end, Clive proves too enigmatic for the audience to get a firm handle on any of his beliefs or feelings, including his racism.
Truth be told, I was expecting Clive to be a lot more racist than he was. This says a lot about the biases that I brought to the film.
There’s quite an interesting dynamic going on with Ben’s filmmaking. Clive doesn’t like Ben’s career choice, and would certainly prefer him to have gone into something more “practical,” the family business specifically, as he had done. But he seems to have accepted Ben’s decision, in his own skewed way, at least.
All this makes it that much more of a surprise when we learn that Clive’s one real passion is photography. Clive quickly set aside whatever ambitions he might have had as an artist to go into the family retail business. A part of him will always be a frustrated artist who never pursued his dream.
As you can imagine, this complicates his relationship with Ben. After all, here is his son, someone who has become at least moderately successful in the arts, pointing a camera in his face for a month, asking him questions, interrogating him as he sits amongst stacks of boxes in the stockroom. I imagine that the cameras must have seemed to Clive a kind of constant taunt. And who can blame the guy, really? Being the subject of a documentary is tough on anyone, but this time it comes with family baggage. Still, there’s a skewed sense of pride that he has at his son’s success. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most touching moments in the film has the two of them on a photography trip where they don’t have to worry about their interpersonal problems and family struggles. They revel in beauty and take photos, finally at ease with each other.
Looking at the raw numbers, Clive shouldn’t be a sympathetic character. He’s verbally abusive to his family, to his staff, to anyone he has a deep relationship with (he’s great with his customers). But he’s also a very sad, angry, pitiable man. He wants to do what’s right, but he’s constantly getting in his own way, and hurting people in the process. I think it’s easy to recognize at least a certain part of ourselves in him.
One of the main questions that the movie raises is whether a parent’s financial support is enough. Ben mentions several times how indebted he is to his father for working hard to provide a good life for himself and his sister, and he knows that he probably wouldn’t be an artist without his father’s financial help. But Clive fails at just about every other definition of a good parent. It’s a tough question, and one that’s probably going to have to be resolved by particular parents and children. There’s not really an objective answer to the question.
Relationships between parents and children are complicated under the best circumstances. Taking Stock is one of the best explorations I’ve seen of this topic, and one that kept me thinking about its meaning long after the movie was over. If you’re after a thought-provoking documentary about family dynamics, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Taking Stock will be released on all major streaming platforms on February 15th.
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