Documentaries that overtly involve documentarians in their own primary narratives, movies like Capturing the Friedmans and Stevie, invite guarded skepticism. Inevitably, the social scientist will skew his results by putting a camera between himself and the people with whom he interacts as both an individual and a filmmaker (talk about conflict of interest). While these concerns are ever-present in Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, he succeeds in illuminating his story's universal appeal.
Block never pretends to be objective in telling the tale of his parents. While still in the process of recording his mother Mina for posterity, Block finds himself blindsided by her sudden passing. When Block's newly widowed father Mike remarries in a matter of months, the decision predictably rattles Block and his two sisters. It also sets in motion a process of unearthing long-buried truths. As Mike and his old friend/new wife Kitty pack up the Block family homestead at 51 Birch Street, memories flood back, secrets emerge, and fresh questions arise.
What was the true nature of Mike and Mina's fifty-plus years of marriage? Were they in love, or at least happy more often than not? Or did they have affairs while trapped in a marriage of "convenience"? Though he muses, "When it comes to your parents, maybe ignorance is bliss," Block slowly seeks answers, from the three, suddenly available boxes of Mina's daily diaries (spanning 1968 to at least 2001), his sisters (Karen drily notes of her remarried father, "He's the new and improved dad"), a rabbi, and a psychological expert on father-son relationships.
The thoughts Mina put on paper afford Block a chance to know his mother in a way he never could when she was alive: as a woman unfulfilled sexually and socially, in her limited role of housewife. Block keeps a safe distance by mostly implying how each spouse failed the other, though he does share the most torrid portions of his mother's diary. At least he acknowledges the question of whether he should be broadcasting to the world what he finds (though the answer is always the same, isn't it?).
Block teases big questions about his own marriage without giving us enough information to draw our own conclusions. His wife Marjorie makes a barbed comment about infidelity to which Doug never responds, and she gives a list of her blessings that includes her kids but not her husband—we must take on faith that their marriage is as solid as Doug claims.
Despite his trepidation to broach touchy topics with his notoriously stoic father, Doug does prod the still-sharp 83-year-old Mike for answers. Though the old man clearly has his flaws, his liberation from a dysfunctional marriage puts him in a mood to share some wisdom. "Nobody gave us lessons how to be parents," he notes. "We don't get lessons in how to have a loving relationship. What we learn we learn a lot too late."
51 Birch Street achieves a kind of grace when father and son chat climactically in the empty house. The conversation may not be entirely honest (draw your own conclusions), but there's an undeniable power to the moment when the father turns the camera around and asks his own question of his son. We'd all be better off if we could find our grace without a camera's obstruction, but ironically, Block's film provides a useful direction to see our way.