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Housecleaning, religion and an unwitting cat surplus

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Hoarding has become a common pop-culture topic in recent years, thanks to reality TV shows such as "Hoarders" and "Storage Wars" and the comic book-retaining attitudes of characters on "The Big Bang Theory."
But viewers have never seen pack-ratting through the lens of "Thy Father's Chair," a new documentary that makes hoarding as urgent as global warming and as impossible to turn away from as Al Gore's beard.
It also transforms such accumulation into a symptom of more complex psycho-religious issues. Alex Lora's and Antonio Tibaldi's film, which premiered at the elite True/False Film Festival this weekend, examines the lives of two 60-ish twin brothers, Shraga and Avraham, who live in the primarily ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y. By focusing closely on these unlikely subjects, the directors offer not just a sneakily compelling character study but prime evidence of a documentary trend.
Despite their traditional garb, Shraga and Avraham, we realize early on, are well-educated. Neither has married. Their jobs are unclear. One or likely both, we learn, casually and heartbreakingly over the course of the film, may have a drinking problem.
But more pressingly — at least for their beleaguered upstairs tenant — are the hoarding issues. Shraga and Avraham have lived in the house for decades — from childhood, in fact. They seem to have neither heard of or made use of a garbage bag during that time.
The collection: Viewers are given full access to the brothers' cache, a collection of stray papers, old clothing, empty water bottles, mysterious household items and other detritus so vast that if it actually had historic value it could populate several presidential libraries.
You can practically feel — and smell — the clutter. Leftovers from the days of the Second Temple languish in the freezer; spare unusable computer parts pile as high as synagogue prayer books. Cats have come to make a new home for themselves. Finding it hospitable, they have invited more cats.
The brothers have finally been compelled to clean because, after years of steadfast refusals, their upstairs tenant has said he will stop paying rent until the situation is remedied, and they badly need the income. A professional housecleaning service, veritable hazmat suits in tow, is hired, and the cleaners arrive to empty, sort, organize, trash and generally make the space livable again.
(When said tenant, firm but reasonable, turns up at one point to ensure the brothers are cooperating with the housecleaners, we realize this is a cycle of sorts; in 2007, the tenant undertook the cleaning himself, but it didn't hold. Incidentally, an unseen third sibling has also piled material high but doesn't appear to live there; he is even more unwilling to come and deal with the man-made mountains.)
Claustrophobic: Employing a kind of Wiseman- or Maysles-esque approach that might be described as fly-on-the-wall (incidentally, it would have plenty of insect company), the camera positions itself in the house and stays there. In doing so, the film allows us entree into a claustrophobic space one would never spend time in, or perhaps want to.
Indeed, the filmmakers had their own doubts.
"It's hard to do, it smells, when you're doing sync sound, you can't make noise and something is always crunching underneath your feet," Tibaldi described his initial thought after a screening. "Why am I doing this?'" he found himself asking early on.
But he gritted through, and to the good. Tibaldi's camera work is careful and deeply human, making Shraga's and Avraham's house a place from which we can't move our eyes. The filmmakers are interested in understanding, not judging.
The brothers: As the cleaning progresses, the psychological and physical space begins to open up. So too do the brothers, in casual comments about the pain and priorities in their lives. The activity underway here is hardly just an evacuation of objects; it is coming to terms with the past and its unfulfilled expectations.
The brothers are articulate, intelligent people, not without self-awareness; if their manner can sometimes come with a level of spectrum-y possessiveness, it also carries a high degree of insight into human nature. Unresolved issues with their father, a former electronics worker with his own ghosts, run under the film. So does remorse about not marrying. When a cleaner notes how a bedbug has started a whole family inside a mattress, one of the brothers mutters tartly, "He's doing better than I am."
Also infused with humanity is the cleaning crew that has been dispatched to deal with the mess, in particular a soft-spoken Israeli named Chanan, who becomes as much therapist as housecleaner over the course of the film.
"If you're going to ask for the kind of access to make a film," said Tibaldi, explaining his empathetic approach, "it comes with responsibility."
Research on hoarding suggests that its roots lie with a compulsive inability to let go of the past — a complex and clinical disorder — far more than simple laziness, and one wishes for a little more insight in this regard. By refraining from comment, the film also doesn't explore how the rigidity of the brothers' religion may have contributed to their larger inflexibility about changing their lifestyle.
But the verite approach offers other benefits. True/False exists on the cutting edge of nonfiction film trends, and "Thy Father's Chair" exemplifies a new documentary movement of sorts.
Or, at least, a revived one.

A scene from "Thy Father's Chair." (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam)