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Film Review: Uncle Howard

Monday 19 December 2016

Howard Brookner was a filmmaker who directed only three features before his life was sadly cut short. His nephew, Aaron Brookner, always idolised his uncle, and has followed in his footsteps as a filmmaker, even immortalising him in a documentary. ‘Uncle Howard’ stitches together family movies, footage from Howard’s films, and the archive he left behind. The film is a sensitive portrait of the director, his films, and the Aids epidemic of the 1980s that took his life.

Aaron begins the film by recovering his uncle’s footage from ‘Burroughs: the Movie,’ his documentary about William S. Burroughs, finally persuading poet John Giorno, who now lives in the New York ‘Bunker’ that Burroughs called home, to give him access to the reels and reels of film. Howard made the film while studying film at New York University with the help of his fellow students, none other than the now renowned director Jim Jarmusch, who recorded sound, and Tom DiCillo on camera, who has also become a director. When Aaron shows Jarmusch, who executive produced this documentary, the archive of footage, Jarmusch proclaims it a “wealth of history,” and he isn’t wrong. The film spends time looking at the making of ‘Burroughs: the Movie,’ indulging in a literary legend, and examining the friendship that developed between the film’s subject and creator.

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Aaron soon starts to search for Howard himself within the footage, with numerous outtakes and clapperboard shots unveiled, turning the focus away from Burroughs to the character of his uncle. We see excerpts from Howard’s other films, ‘Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars,’ a documentary about the theatre director, and his first and only fictional feature ‘Bloodhounds of Broadway.’ Yet, ultimately it’s his uncle’s personal life that Aaron is really interested in. Piecing together his life, Aaron explores his creativity and desire to make films, his occasionally hedonistic lifestyle, how he came out to a disappointed family, his relationship with partner Brad Gooch, and the tragedy of eventually being diagnosed with Aids. The film provides a moving look at the epidemic, with one interviewee describing how a year after some of the footage was shot, half the people there had probably died. Howard continued to work hard on ‘Bloodhounds of Broadway’ throughout his illness, passing away shortly before its release.

The film is also full of tender family nostalgia, and indeed, the film itself serves as a piece of family memorabilia. Numerous family members and friends of Howard speak about him, and Aaron provides sincere and affecting voiceover throughout the film as he charts his uncle’s influence on him. “Memories are like dreams – very beautifully, they exist in our minds. When we write things down, or take a picture, or record something, we archive them,” he says. In directing this film, he has certainly collaged together a beautiful archive of his uncle. ‘Uncle Howard’ is both an interesting look at a talented filmmaker’s work, and a moving portrait of a much-loved family member.

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Sometimes meandering in pace, and with more – as is natural – sentimental nostalgia than analytical views on Howard’s career, this is nonetheless a very engrossing, affecting, and intimate documentary. Howard’s life was one cut short: a talented filmmaker, one part of a happy relationship, and a loving uncle, all gone. However, it was a life well lived, as confirmed in a poignant, insightful note left by Howard to his parents, written two days after being diagnosed with Aids, and intended to be read after his death: “You know it isn’t so bad to live a short life, as long as you do what you want with it – and I did. This is what is important in life: do what you want to do. Use your life to fulfil yourself, to go as far as you can, regardless of the risks. This is what I did, and so I am content in the end.”

Watch the trailer for ‘Uncle Howard’ below:

‘Uncle Howard’ is out in UK cinemas now.