I have just added the following entry to my list on this site of the 100 greatest English-language films.
Paul Friedrich, anthropologist, poet, linguist, university professor, regarded daughter Su as a substitute for his adored sister, for whose childhood death he has (unnecessarily) blamed himself. We may infer from his cold withdrawal from this daughter’s life, especially after he leaves and divorces Su’s mother, disappointed expectations. In becoming herself, Su increasingly departed from the identity that her father had imposed on her.
The title of Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim, a companion-piece to her film about her relationship with her mother, The Ties That Bind (1985), refers to the serendipitous mystery of conception addressed by the film’s first three chapters, “Zyglote,” “Y-chromosome” and “X-chromosome.” (The first letter of chapter titles reverses the alphabet, Z to A; the film ends with a recitation of the “ABC”-song accompanying a doubled, hence destabilized, image of Su as a child.) Also, “sink or swim” summarizes the attitude informing both how Paul taught his daughter to swim and his parenting generally. Friedrich’s black-and-white film includes snippets of home movies, scientific films, TV shows, newly shot reconstructive material, etc. The haunting silence of the opening movement is pierced by the voiceover of a young girl representing Friedrich as a child.
Paul, competitive, taught Su chess. He never played again with her following the first time she won.
The clanking of typewriter keys trails off into silence as we watch (in stark photographic negative) “Su” type a letter explaining the family hardship post-abandonment: “P.S. I wish I could mail you this letter.”
Father and daughter travel together to Mexico, but Paul sends Su back home, alone, as punishment. Su: her tears were not those “of an orphaned child but those of a frustrated teenage girl who had to pay for a crime she didn’t commit.”
Delicate, profoundly moving coming-of-age documentary.
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