• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Sunday 29th April, 2007

Still a masterpiece at a distance of twenty years

The image is idealized, sepia and fading. A father faces the camera. Two of his children sit to his right, one to the left. The table is set for Christmas. The size of the table, the spartan surroundings and the way the people are dressed tell us it is a British working class family. They sit in silence waiting for the mother. Slowly the father gathers the tablecloth in his fists. His children become tense and sit as still as they can. He stands up, pulling the tablecloth and all the food onto the floor. 'Clean it up!' he bellows. Distant Voices, Still Lives is a film in two parts about two parents, three children, a terraced house, an extended family and the pubs in which they meet. Directed by Liverpool native Terence Davies and first released in 1988, this autobiographical masterpiece has been digitally restored and is on limited release in the UK. The decline of cohesive two-parent families living in close-knit communities is arguably the most common explanation for deteriorating outcomes for children. Nearly two decades after its original release, Terence Davies cinematic elegy to post-war working class Liverpool reminds us not only of that argument, but also of another side of the story. The film is a series of tableaux, each representing a fragment of memory from one of the family members. The family is close; the film records accidents, deaths, marriages and births. It records the warmth and support of family and community — also the violence and what today we would recognize as emotional maltreatment by the periodically depressed father. Like the Harvard sociologist Rob Sampson, Davies is able to show how two people will often remember the same events in very different ways. One child remembers her father as careless and violent; her sister remembers his warmth and is inconsolable when he dies. There are no psychiatrists, no domestic violence counsellors, no child protection officers in sight. The family have each other, their extended kin and their friends. They get on with their life.

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