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Documentary Charlie Tyrell

My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes

Filmmaker Charlie Tyrell seeks to better understand his emotionally distant late-father through the personal belongings he left behind... including a stack of VHS dirty movies.

Play
Documentary Charlie Tyrell

My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes

Filmmaker Charlie Tyrell seeks to better understand his emotionally distant late-father through the personal belongings he left behind... including a stack of VHS dirty movies.

My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes

Directed By Charlie Tyrell
Produced By Milkman Productions Inc
Made In Canada

Lurid title aside, Charlie Tyrell’s short documentary My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes achieves a remarkable balance between lightness and sincerity, in which the hook of his late-father’s old VHS porno tapes serves as an opportunity to dive into a larger and more meaningful examination of his father’s passing and family history.

In the film, Tyrell uncovers his late dad’s old belongings to learn more about his emotionally distant father and how he came to be the way he was. Each layer of inquiry brings Charlie closer to the personal quirks and failings of his forbearers—qualities that shaped the life of subsequent generations. What starts out as a personal investigation of family dynamics, and an attempt to better understand his dad and their father-son relationship, becomes a moving and heartfelt rendition on how the past shapes us—the good, the bad—and what it means to search for a connection to it nonetheless. 

While it is the emotional aspects of Tyrell’s journey in the film that provide the most resonance, key artistic decisions of the production are notable. Those familiar with Tyrell’s previous film, I Thought I Told You to Shut Up, know him to be one of the most engaging stylists in documentary. This film uses blurry home videos, cleverly edited voice-over interviews with Charlie’s mother and siblings, as well as minimalistic, but gorgeous, stop-motion animation,  creating a distinctive look that provides an immediate hook for the viewing experience.

Tyrell also enlists cult comedy director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) to narrate the film, and this decision not only adds a professional actor’s voice to the film’s soundtrack, but creates a necessary third-person emotional detachment, allowing Charlie to be part of the story in a front-and-center manner without allowing the work to come off as self-indulgent. 

This combination of emotional exploration and stellar craft made My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes an instant hit with audiences this year. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and was immediately picked up as a New York Times Op-Doc. After playing other festivals such as SXSW and HotDocs, the film won two awards at the Ottawa Animation festival last week before making its Vimeo debut. 

Talking about his inspiration for My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, Tyrell relates:

It was an idea that I mostly kept to myself. But after years and years I realized that I was essentially curating who my father was through the personal belongings I kept of his. And then I started to question that if that was all anyone saw of him then they’d really have no idea who he was. So I wanted to make a film that showed who he was, but I still had to figure some of that out for myself.

For me personally, My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes hits almost uncomfortably close to home. My own dad past away at the beginning of last year. Losing a parent changes you substantially—irrevocably. All you can do is work through the coping process and cherish the good memories, while coming to terms with the not so great ones.

I still miss my dad. And obviously we had unresolved issues. But I think this film was sort of my late-to-the-game eulogy for him. I wanted to preserve his memory but still had things to analyze about him and our relationship. It was a very cathartic experience and I think that it’s something that I could only articulate through film. It was a big surprise that the film would be as broadly relatable as it has been. But I guess we all have these kinds of family stories.

Indeed, there is so much I recognize from my own past and feelings in this film. From the history of difficult family dynamics, to the frustrating idiosyncrasies and desperate attempts to find a common interest or hobby. The clumsy efforts of my father’s generation in reaching out emotionally is certainly familiar, more often than not alienating me even more in the process. The relationship between fathers and sons can be especially peculiar, both struggling to understand each other while failing to see how similar they often are.

When you lose someone close to you, you contemplate the things you should have said or done, or should have done differently. You dwell on the experiences you don’t get to share anymore, and regret not taking that olive branch when they reached out in their own, particular ways—you start to realize that you had more in common than you thought. A lot of this might sound cliché, but while each of us has to deal with grief and loss on our own terms, it’s comforting to realize it is still one of the most universal experiences imaginable. 

With My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, Charlie Tyrell makes sense of his dad’s passing in a creative, almost productive way. He turns the film in a kind of conversation, making the viewer feel less alone in the process of watching it, and reinforcing my belief in the power of film. I probably feel a closer bond to Charlie now through this work than to a some of the immediate people around me—an unusual thing to think considering he is a filmmaker on the other side of the world (Charlie’s from Canada, I live in Austria), but this is the power of art—Charlie worked up the courage, and has the necessary cinematic vision and talent, to open himself up to the world and share his story, and for me it resonates greatly.

Rarely has the “directed by“ credit at the end of a film had such emotional power.