In 2003, Elizabeth Stopford set out to make a short film exploring the ongoing inheritance squabbles in her family. She was drawn to the King Lear-style dynamics between her grandmother Ruth and her aunt Camilla as they fought over the future of the family estate. Little did she know that, over time, the story would unfold as a tragedy in which her late grandfather would be exposed as having physically abused his twin daughters. Camilla somehow managed to distance herself from her sergeant-major father, but Stopford's mother Victoria was abused until late into her teenage years.
In the wrong hands, this could be a voyeuristic, sentimental film motivated by the desire to shock. As it is, I'm Not Dead Yet is a brave and intimate debut documentary by the 30-year-old Stopford. She is acutely sensitive to the subject of abuse and does her best not to take sides even when it is her own mother who is falling apart in front of the camera. Yet she is neither callous nor remote, simply doing her best not to tell the story but to stand back and let the story tell itself.
Elizabeth shot 150 hours of film while still working as a producer at Tiger Aspect, and interspersed her own material with poignant old footage of the twins and their brother playing. Much of this is so old that it's bubbled, lending it a kind of eerie prescience. Even Dunwood, the sprawling Gothic house at the heart of the film, seems to hold malevolent spirits.
Stopford had been making her short inheritance film for about a year when everything changed. The relationship between Ruth, 86, and Camilla, who has lived at Dunwood for most of her adult life with her husband and children, begins to deteriorate. As a result, Ruth flees to France, where Victoria lives alone on a farm. Camilla accuses Victoria of kidnapping Ruth in order to get her money (and the house); Ruth takes legal action to try to reclaim ownership of the house; Camilla responds by questioning Ruth's mental state.
There's a rather menacing scene in which Ruth returns briefly to Dunwood with Victoria to collect more things and is met by Camilla's son Brodie on the drive. Ruth tells him that Camilla hits her and, twirling a screwdriver in his hands, he replies: "She does not hit you... Everybody gets a little bit violent but..." And his mobile rings. We never find out if Ruth's allegations are true. "It's very hard to say what really happened. I never set out to make an investigative film with hidden cameras. The fact that it evolved organically is crucial to me in terms of my integrity."
Nothing, however, prepares us for the great revelation. On their return to France, Victoria talks to camera about her relationship with Ruth. She is angry that her mother has never acknowledged the abuse. "She has no recognition at all and yet she did know my father abused me." A little later, she says: "I was just a child and I hadn't even got a mother I could run to to rescue me... I was just somebody she didn't want to be around at all."
I ask Elizabeth what it felt like, filming her mother at her most vulnerable. "There's something about being there with a camera that does make it easier in a way. It's not so much hiding behind a camera but more the sense that I didn't have to react in the moment. I could process the information and return to it later." Ruth and her grandfather, Geoff, divorced in 1972; he never returned to Dunwood, but Victoria kept in touch with him and Elizabeth remembers him visiting when she was a child.
She was aware that there was "this stuff from the past" but it was unspoken. The full revelations from her mother must have been difficult to take on. It is to Elizabeth's credit that even at this point she doesn't judge any of the characters in her film. She is even empathetic to Ruth, who seems to have been irreparably damaged after being adopted as a four-year-old at the end of the First World War. "Had she spoken out against Geoff, the family's reputation would have been tarnished and the family would have been divided; this was simply unthinkable to her."
Yet the silence has overwhelming consequences. Victoria, close to tears, says that she had "no control over what was happening" with her father. I suggest to Elizabeth that while Camilla was adored by her mother, the only love on offer to Victoria was from her father, and what kind of love was that? They were so locked into the abusive relationship that even when Victoria married at 28, she maintained contact with her father. "You're right," Elizabeth says, her voice almost a whisper. "It was the one parental bond she had..."
As the documentary develops, it becomes clear that Camilla would like to discuss the abuse while both Victoria and Ruth decline. John Battsek, who produced I'm Not Dead Yet, thinks the story works so well because it is complex and yet so simple. "If those three women could sit down and talk, it could do so much for them. It's a deep and dark documentary but one we can all identify with: the difficulties we face when communicating with our loved ones."
Elizabeth, however, is determined to break the cycle. "I know it's a dark film, but I tried to make it beautiful as well. By turning something painful into something beautiful, you can reclaim it. I want to be open about what happened in my family's past. When I'm a mother, I want to be completely open with my children. Which is something my mother, loving though she was, wasn't able to do."
Elizabeth is acutely aware that "abuse documentaries" attract controversy. "I spent a lot of dark nights of the soul where I'd question my motives for making this film. But I feel as though I've grilled myself so much that I no longer feel nervous about people seeing it. And not everyone in my family has chosen to see it, but they are all OK with it being shown."
Elizabeth doesn't think that she or anyone else in her family saw the documentary as a form of therapy; she insists the events would have unfolded whether or not she was there with her camera. Having questioned her motives, she now hopes I'm Not Dead Yet will make a difference. "My mum saw a documentary about abuse when she was 30 and it was the first time she really understood what had happened to her. She told me it was unbelievable that she was a social worker and, until seeing this documentary, had never made the connection between not wanting to exist and the abuse."
There are some desperately sad moments in I'm Not Dead Yet, not least right at the end. But Elizabeth's last shot of her mother is, at least, redemptive. Victoria is filmed in the attic of her house, looking through some old things. She is calm yet the devastation of her past is close the surface. Holding what appears to be one of her father's old hats, Victoria says, almost to herself: "Everyone has a right to be remembered for the good things they did."
'Storyville: I'm Not Dead Yet' is on BBC4 on Monday at 10pmReuse content