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    The Watershed

    Growing up in splitsville

    The maker of "The Watershed" interviews her own father, mother, brothers and sisters to tell her family's story from divorce through depression to, just maybe, redemption.


    "The Watershed" is a plain, unadorned set of interviews with members of the Trunk family of Long Island, California and Florida, about the defining event — the watershed event — of their lives: Mr. and Mrs. Trunk's divorce.

    Directed by: Mary Trunk.
    Featuring: Mary Trunk, Maggie Light, John Trunk, Lizzie Udwin, Jenny Welch, Andy Trunk, Julie Trunk, John Trunk, Paula Gilmartin, Florence Flanagan, Fran Flanagan, Michael Gilmartin, John Gilmartin.
    Cinematography: Paul Sanchez.
    Edited by: Paul Sanchez, Mary Trunk.

    Related links: Official site
    Quad Cinema 34 West 13th St., between 6th Ave. and University (212) 255-8800. Thurs., Nov. 11, 2004, 6:45 p.m.

    Swiss-American Film Festival 2004
    • Overview
    • The Fallen (new version of Letters from the Dead)
    • Strong Shoulders
    • Official site
    It's probably not a documentary for everybody — nothing here is as extreme and dramatic as the events of "Capturing the Friedmans," for example, and the participants all have a couple decades' perspective on the family history. Their shellshock has had many years to fade into the background. But for those of us who lived almost this exact story, the Trunks' experience is bracingly familiar and its retelling provides some valuable insight.

    The story is so common among children of the 1970s that it almost doesn't need to be capsulized, but it goes like this: Mom and dad had a perfect little church wedding in 1959 and quickly got to work having seven children. Dad had a white-collar job of questionable stability and mom had a tenuous grasp of the necessities of housemaking, but the family muddled through in a facsimile of suburban-American normalcy. In the early '70s, Dad was so fed up with Mom that he did the hitherto unthinkable — he left. "I made a mistake when I married her," he says in an interview now. "I made a mistake. But I'll be damned if I was going to live the rest of my life with that mistake."

    The Watershed  
    Dad has his excuses, but after a while he saw little of his kids anymore. Meanwhile, Mom — left broke and alone with seven children — became increasingly depressed and alcoholic. The kids' relationship with their mom, one daughter says, was "like an abused woman with her husband — after a while you learn ways to avoid getting him angry. So we learned of ways to avoid getting mom out of her bed. ... It was always better to have her unconscious."

    The Trunk kids' story actually has a surprise ending that's not as bad as the rest of their saga would lead you to expect. But overall, you get a very clear portrait of divorced-family dynamics and the lingering emotional struggle in the grown children's hearts from this family's very typical experience.

    A few years ago, the psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein published a controversial book called "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," full of case studies of grown-up children of divorced parents. Among the many interesting observations to be had from the book is that most of the subjects, around age 30, settled a lot of their childhood issues, abandoned the destructive patterns that characterized their teens and twenties, and moved into a much more emotionally healthy stage in their lives. That observation came back to me as I watched these thirty-something siblings. One set of comments that stood out was the following, in two parts, from one of the Trunk daughters about a conversation with her father:

      The Watershed
    "He said it, and he was very adamant when he said it. He said he didn't want that many kids and that he never wanted me and Andy. Never. That was just mom's ploy to keep him in the house. Okay, now not only have you not been the caretaker but you didn't even want me around."

    Here is a horribly jarring example of what goes wrong in the divorced-family dynamic — it becomes all about the parents. Leaving aside the fact that their father would say such a vicious thing at all, we can also see what insubstantial regard he has for his own children's humanity. They are merely pawns in the parents' struggle.

    But she goes on to say this about it, trying to articulate something she must have felt but never tried to express out loud until now:

    "Now I look at it and say, I wasn't a planned child — and yet, in spite of that, it's my life. It's the gift that I've been given. It's the life that I think is the gift that I can do on my own. It's my deal and I'm going to take it and run with it. Nobody's going to take it away."

    This is a great attitude. There's got to be a point where you see that your parents were not necessarily child-raising geniuses, they did a lot of wrong things for narcissistic reasons, and you decide you're going to be all right with that and start mastering your own life.

    So there's a lot of underlying sadness in this documentary, but it's tempered by the passage of time and by the film's focus simply on the facts of what happened long ago — not necessarily on the siblings' struggle and their inner psychology. And that's fine. It's an important window into one of the basic building blocks of American society — the dysfunctional family.

    NOVEMBER 8, 2004

    Reader comments on The Watershed:

  • 0/10   from Josh Benjamin, May 25, 2005

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