The TIFF rejected it, I hear him explain when asked why he didn’t wait to show the film there, his disappointment apparent. They said it didn’t fit.
I am both flabbergasted and embarrassed by this as a Torontonian who’s often touted our annual film festival as one of the very best. A film made by a Canadian, about a Canadian with ties to one of the most famous singers in history, was apparently not relevant to the Toronto International Film Festival. What does the TIFF deem relevant? Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, and Score: A Hockey Musical. Perhaps the fact that Jonathan Holiff’s documentary My Father and The Man In Black is not endorsed by the Cash estate is a factor; perhaps it is the balanced, human look at an era of Cash’s career that sent them scattering.
Either way, it’s TIFF’s loss and NXNE’s incredible gain.
In 2005, Saul Holiff – Cash’s manager throughout a significant portion of his career – takes his own life, and it is with the stark and accurate depiction of this suicide that My Father and The Man In Black begins. From this opening sequence – the image of a man walking through his living room transposed over the crowd of a roaring concert hall – Jonathan Holiff quickly establishes his eye for unique and telling shots. In this case, the message is clear: Saul’s past haunts him to his very last breath.
This past haunts his son Jonathan as well. Estranged from the age of 17, when years of being at odds had reached a crescendo, his father’s death calls him home to Canada – not to a funeral, as Saul demanded there not be one, but because Jonathan’s life as a Hollywood promoter no longer offers the chance to finally win Saul’s love. Saul doesn’t leave a note or any gesture of goodbye. What he does leave is a storage locker, and as Jonathan heeds his mother’s suggestion to perhaps find answers in the relics of a turbulent history, he brings us along for the ride.
My Father and The Man In Black is not an easy film to watch, but it is enthralling and gratifying. Between short bursts of laughter, there are many moments of heartache as Jonathan questions why his father treated him so harshly, and why he committed suicide. The more contents are examined within that claustrophobic locker, the more devastating a picture is painted. Cycles of family dysfunction are pulled from the shadows, connecting the dots between a son seeking knowledge and love and a father craving much the same, yet never finding it within himself. That the story of Saul’s life coincides with that of Johnny Cash – the experience shaking him to where he cannot choose but project his self-loathing onto a son who perhaps reminded him too much of Cash himself – only deepens the drama on this emotional rollercoaster ride. It also provides Holiff with an extensive archive of letters, photos, phone conversations and audio diaries from which he constructs a narrative with as little bias as possible.
The film is emotionally deep, delving into heavy subject matter that so many can relate to, yet is surprisingly not a downer. Holiff is careful to balance the difficult times with playful letters exchanged between Cash and the elder Holiff and wry quotes from Johnny. The story of Johnny’s relationship with Saul is presented frankly, with the flaws of both parties clearly on display. Holiff, in this manner, humanizes both artist and manager, which is refreshing. For a documentary that could be very skewed, given the director’s perspective and connection to the material, it feels sincere and balanced. The subjective realm is reserved for Jonathan’s feelings and reactions to his journey towards understanding – admirable in a first-time film maker.
While some – particularly Johnny Cash fans – may seek more coverage of the star in this film, I find such a desire misplaced and indicative of a superficial understanding of Holiff’s work. Setting aside the fact that numerous documentaries, books and films fill that market, the truth is that this is not a Johnny Cash film. In a sense, this isn’t even a Saul Holiff documentary, either. This is Jonathan’s story – the story of one child’s journey towards the answer for a single question: “Why?” It is the reconstruction of the history of one dysfunctional family who just happened to live through extraordinary circumstances, and Holiff succeeds beautifully. The film is poignant and raw, and ultimately sincere.
My Father and The Man In Black is a story many of us could tell at its core, and this universality is what makes it a must-see film. Kudos, NXNE, for bringing it to this city and giving the Holiff story the attention it so richly deserves.
(Note: a minor edit has been made to an earlier version of this review for clarity.)