Early in the HBO documentary “Great Photography, Beautiful Life,” filmmaker and photojournalist Amanda Mustard says her grandfather was “creepy” and always knew “things were going on.” However, she did not know the details of his pedophilia. “And now that I look closer and find the concrete accusations of rape that he managed to wriggle out of, it’s just scratching the surface. I just need to keep looking. Maybe I can hold him responsible.”
The subtitle of his remarkable film is “Confronting a Family’s Secrets,” and that’s what he’s after. Her grandfather is William Flickinger, a retired masseur, whom she interviewed before her death—and others, including her mother, who was both victim and enabler—to get to the truth.
Everyone in the assisted living community comments on what a nice person Flickinger is. Then a woman stands next to their table. “I hope you’re being a good boy,” she jokes. But there is an advantage to their shopping. Maybe this isn’t a joke. As he walks away, Flickinger mutters gruffly: “This one has a mouth.”
Later, Mustard sits down with him at his home and says: “Can I ask you a few questions?”
“Of course, honey,” he said gently. With love. “Don’t hesitate for anything.”
The duality illustrates these two sides of Flickinger, who is surprisingly frank when talking about his crimes in the abstract. “For example, some of these little girls looked like they were about to jump on me,” he tells Mustard. “This may sound a little silly to you. But they wanted to learn something.”
When asked about a particular child, she says: “We were engaged quite a bit, to be honest. And even though he was small, we were very close sexually. And she loved it. He also admits to molesting Mustard’s mother, Debi, in the bathtub when she was five. “He just loved it.”
This confession is news for Debi; Debi says her first memories were when she was seven or eight years old, and “All I remember is lying face down on one of the chiropractic adjustment tables and feeling him doing something on my back. And I realized it was his penis. And he was rubbing it against my back.”
Co-directed with Rachel Beth Anderson, the film is a deeply personal and uplifting project of the kind you rarely see on streaming platforms these days; here the term “documentary” began to take on a much more cheap and reductive meaning.
Looking at old photographs, Mustard looks at a family portrait. “Great photo, beautiful life” is written on the back, as if someone was hoping to turn this lie into reality.
Mustard has real and understandable anger, and the film serves as a way for him to process some of that anger and grapple with his family’s silence. You’re rooting for him to muster an approach that will push him to the ropes and never give up. Things don’t work out that way because confronting him face to face is harder than he expected. Mustard struggles with his composure at some points. There is so much incompetence here, so human and messy. Mustard dances around the terminology rather than pressing it calmly and firmly. At one point he breaks down in tears, unable to convey messages from his victims.
Debi says of her own mother, Flickinger’s wife: “My mother’s life was like one of those crystals that could be hung in the sun and you could see different aspects of it. Much of it is a mystery. And when I asked him to tell me the truth about some things, my past, my father, or whatever, he got angry at me and said, ‘There’s no use bringing up the past because it’s not going to change. What happened.’ She knew much more than she let on because she wasn’t allowed to express it.
Flickinger’s profession meant he could prey on child clients. Every time it would show up, which it did on a few occasions, it would go out of state and start over. His wife made this possible, which complicates the story even more because it appears that she is, at the very least, stuck in a psychologically abusive marriage with an extremely controlling man.
Its devastating impact was intergenerational. Debi got married at a young age. But her husband was abusive, so she moved back in with her family with her firstborn child, then her younger daughter, who became Mustard’s older sister.
For most of the film, Debi is in denial and reluctant to acknowledge her role in bringing her child closer to a man who would abuse her. Debi claims her mother promised to make sure nothing would happen. In light of her own experiences, why would she trust her mother?
The beauty of the film is that it doesn’t ask you to judge Debi or her mother, it doesn’t ask you to reckon with their complicity; It’s alarming and messy and infuriating and tragic all at once. Mustard tries to find a way to name it, acknowledge it, and lessen its hold on everyone. Flickinger’s refusal to apologize is a final insult to his victims, who want validation for their trauma.
Late in the film, Mustard’s sister records a message for Flickinger.
“Grandpa, I want to start by telling you that I love you very much and that I am grateful to have you as my grandfather.” What an unexpected start.
And then: “For many years, I have suffered from the trauma I experienced when I moved into your house with my mother, where I was sexually abused by you as a child.”
Cognitive dissonance is difficult to reconcile. No matter how justified the anger, family relationships are complicated, complex, and full of mixed emotions.
“Great Photography, Beautiful Life: Confronting One Family’s Secrets” — 4 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Tuesdays at 21:00 on HBO (airing on Max)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic