During the making of Jorge Theilen Armand’s film, La Fortaleza, documentarian Mo Scarpelli came along for the ride to document the making of the father/ son biopic. This resulted in El Father Plays Himself, an exciting, inventive take on the behind-the-scenes documentary. Rather than focus too much on the actual filmmaking at hand, it focuses on the subjects. Jorge Theilen Armand is directing a movie about his father’s life living among the illegal gold mines/miners in 1990’s Venezuela. Instead of hiring an actor to play his father, he gets his father, Jorge Theilen Hedderich, to play his younger self.
One might expect a little bit of push and pull between father and son when they’re working together on any project. It’s just a natural dynamic. However, the push and pull on the set of La Fortaleza is explosive due to Hedderich’s personality and the fact that he is, to put it lightly, a raging alcoholic. Armand makes the mistake of shooting scenes with his father while he is drunk, neglecting to think of what to do once the cameras are off. This doc makes a big statement about enabling addicts, particularly if they’re loved ones. Sometimes it’s just more comfortable and convenient to encourage their bad habits than to help them take stock of what’s going on.
“…Armand is directing a movie about his father’s life…instead of hiring an actor to play his father, he gets his father…to play his younger self.”
This film reminds me of one that it is certainly inspired by, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. They both take place in the Amazon and encapsulate the madness inherent to filmmaking and acting. However, Hedderich is not as malignant as Klaus Kinski, although sometimes you think he might get there. And, of course, no one could ever be compared to Werner Herzog, so let’s move on.
Scarpelli is a veteran cinematographer and encapsulates the beauty of all the exotic locales visited over the course of La Fortaleza. She also captures some beautiful moments shared between father and son among the roaring chaos that El Father usually brings to set with him. Interspliced throughout is home-video footage of both Jorges when they’re younger, letting us build a deeper connection with the two conflicted souls at the heart of both movies. I really enjoyed El Father Plays Himself. Scarpelli is adept at making cinematic documentaries. Where you’re not entirely sure if you just watched a documentary or a very realistic narrative feature, this was definitely put into practice with the last picture of hers I saw, Anbessa. This blurs the lines of that even further and makes for an interesting perspective on a familial saga.
If you like movies-within-movies, making-of documentaries, beautiful nature cinematography, and family drama, El Father Plays Himself has all that and more. It’s an original documentary in a sea of boring, repetitious content. Hopefully, you fish it out and discover this for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
"…captures some beautiful moments shared between father and son among the roaring chaos..."