With a setup that sounds like a sitcom, I wasn’t expecting “My Son the Pornographer” to be so damn real. Art Holbrook, a straight-laced filmmaker with middle-class conservative values from placid, tranquil Victoria BC, discovers that his stepson Kole Kerr, with whom he bonded while married to Kole’s mother (when Kole was a child), was abused as a youth (after Art left the family) and has become a punk-rock-haired, chain-smoking, bohemian porno maker based in Prague. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Art seeks to reconnect with the young man he feels partly responsible for, and along the way discovers a whole host of dark issues that have shaped Kole quite differently than “how it was supposed to be.”
Director Peter Campbell acts as a true “fly on the wall” as the two men, who obviously and genuinely care for each other, struggle to put aside their differences and reconcile the past. Both have issues; Art feels badly for what happened to Kole after he left, Kole is not at all convinced that his experiences have been entirely bad for him, but can see a self-destructive side he doesn’t like.
Watching these two men grapple with feelings, psychology and their respective pasts makes for mesmerizing watching, particularly because neither one holds back anything from the ever-present camera. At the beginning, you get the impression that Art is out to “save” Kole, but over time each man learns more about the other, and attitudes on both sides start to melt.
Along the way, we get an unapologetic look inside the world of cheap European porn, an update on Kole’s colorful history, and lots of shots of beautiful Prague. The emotional honesty of the “square” dad and his “lost boy” son is remarkable, and the candor Kole brings to the documentary is at times almost uncomfortable, but serves to disallow the painting of either man into stereotypes — neither is victim, neither is rescuer. Despite all the soul-baring, you actually get a lot of laughs out of “My Son the Pornographer” — it’s considerably more light-hearted than you’d think, mostly arising from the friendly clash of disparate personalities and worldviews, and the rather clinical world of porn-making.
The moment 65-year-old Art — a respected Canadian documentary producer himself — agrees to a bit cameo in Kole’s “The Sexual Adventures of Little Red,” you know that the tables have not just turned, they’re spinning wildly in all directions.
The film could have been like going to therapy, given its setup, but instead it’s like watching your family get together over the holidays — some conflict, some awkwardness, but the love always shines through. If it weren’t for all the language and porno, it might even be called a great family picture.
While neither Kole nor Art finish the film completely resolved, the quiet discipline of director Campbell to be an invisible observer, the miracle of that strange bond we call “family” and both mens’ hope for a better tomorrow make this a really strong and intimately personal documentary that offers valuable lessons in what really matters in our relationships with our kith and kin.