51 Birch Street: Award-Winning Graduate Film Explores Parental Relationships
One review of Doug Block’s criticially acclaimed documentary began ’51 Birch Street is everyone’s address.’ Coming from a critic in Ecuador, this comment eloquently expresses the universality of Block’s documentary about his parents, which was strongly influenced by his participation in Landmark Education’s programs. The film received universal praise, acknowledged by the New York Times as one of its Top Ten films of the year, with reviewer A.O. Scott describing it as “One of the most moving and fascinating documentaries I’ve seen.”
The film, which began simply as Block’s private effort to record his parents for posterity, is an exploration of their lives, their secrets and their dreams. His parents are in many ways very normal people, typical of their generation, which is one reason Block started with no intentions of making a movie about them.
“Who thinks that their parents are that interesting?” He asks.
When his mother dies suddenly and his father remarries three months later, Block re-examines their lives and confonts for the first time that there are many things about his parents that he never knew or understood. He undertakes an investigation to find out who his parents really are and were. In the process, he comes face to face with things he isn’t sure that he wants to know about their past, while at the same time coming to a deeper appreciation of them as human beings.
“What I got from sharing at Landmark is the understanding that I communicate most powerfully when I speak simply and authentically, without trying to be witty or clever,” Block says. “I tried to hold onto that lesson while making 51 Birch Street.”
“With my previous films, it was very much about achieving acclaim and recognition. But with 51 Birch Street, all I was trying to do was tell this very personal story honestly and from the heart. So it’s more than a little ironic that it’s been the most successful, praised film I’ve ever done.”
In the almost two years since the film was released, people contact Block constantly to share their own stories about their own parents and about how the film affected them. He never gets tired of these conversations. The film has universal appeal, not only in that many people were raised by post World War II parents with a working dad and a housewife, but in the common effort each of us has in being whole and complete with our parents. While the film is honest and sometimes painful, it also shows the opportunity for happiness and connnection to our parents that is always there.
Block is now at work on a ‘bookend’ film that looks at his relationship with his daughter titled ‘Almost Gone.’
“Many filmmakers look at their parents, but few look in the other direction — our relationship with our children. Especially as they grow from children to adults,” he notes. Loving our children while knowing they are ultimately going to leave us is a widely known life experience, but it’s one that’s relatively unexplored in art.”