Documentaries and family histories have a near-constant, potent bond. Seasoned practitioners and newbies to the specific form seem persistently drawn to excavating the depths of difficult, thorny family truths so as to understand their own decisions, attitudes, and predilections. It is as if the format encourages them to unpack personal histories through an empathetic, inquisitive lens. Not every project’s payoff lands. Some may just border on indulgence, while others manage to snake into intimate confessionals that reaffirm the power of the format to investigate, unravel, and better understand.

Documentaries are laden with a spirit of inward-bending exploration, fomenting a space where people try to dig deep into what and who preceded them, locating both direct and invisible links between the past and present and edging towards pained, albeit necessary realizations about their own selves. The process must be emotionally demanding, enormously taxing, and strewn with tough questions. How much do the subjects reveal, and does that process of building an intimate acquaintance shift the documentary’s capacity to burrow into one’s soul and map out uncomfortable, stewing stories? Suzanne Raes’ film, “Where Dragons Live,” doesn’t draw from her own experiences but peeks into the crevices of the Impey family history.

As the Impeys’ old family home, the magnificent Cumnor house in Oxfordshire, is perched on the anvil of sale, children and grandchildren reckon with its legacy and their ancestry and confront bitter, unpleasant, and despairing assertions. It is a staggering house, one with forty-seven roof slopes and eighteen chimneys. Having all the bearings of a ‘creepy, haunted house’ as someone describes it, the house and the estate are depicted as a space that encourages an imagination to run wild, and fear casts a spell. The implications of holding on to it are debated in a scene between the teenage grandchildren. The grandson endorses a pragmatic bent of choice, reiterating steep maintenance costs and pronouncing that their grandmother, Jane, is surely more than just the house. The granddaughter leans more, however, to keeping the house.

The film sharply delineates differences in how the children of Jane and her husband, Oliver, grew up while calmly unraveling not-so-rosy pictures of family bonds. As much as being in the house, surrounded by all sorts of peculiar, fascinating curios and emblems of their parents’ individual obsessions and proclivities, both Harriet’s and her brothers’ childhoods come off as filled with unique, differentiating kinds of emotional burdens and punishing expectations.

Where Dragons Live (2024) ‘Sheffield DocFest’ Movie Review
A still from “Where Dragons Live” (2024)

Each of the siblings was held to varying standards, thereby divided in memories of their parents, who may not have acted as conventionally nurturing, ever-present forces in their lives. The parents demanded exceptional brilliance from their sons, one more than the other. They’d unmindfully dole out a casually cruel remark when a son called out blatantly discriminatory behavior as if it didn’t matter to them what emotional and mental consequences their words and deeds wielded. But it was Harriet who was closest to their father, gleefully delighting in shared in-jokes as well as inheriting his dragon-fetish.

Possessing a scientific temper, Jane was singular and ruthless in her pursuits. While her husband couldn’t have been a bigger cheerleader, the couple didn’t pause to reflect on the ramifications of the life they led, especially on their children. They were unstinting, rigorous, and so driven. The biggest sins in their book were a life that didn’t bury itself in ceaseless work and demonstrated a lack of an observant eye. Did they bother to pay attention to the way they dealt with their kids? Harriet wonders.

Nevertheless, as imposing and distant as she might have been, Jane’s quirks and odd habits embossed themselves in everyone’s mind. She had all sorts of peculiar stipulations. A sofa in the house could only be occupied by women, while every other piece of cutlery or utility in the house carried a note of instruction. A bunch of knives had a scrap of paper tied to it, warning to handle with caution.

Any traces of probable resentment and antipathy directed at either her or Oliver were offset with the affection and longing that inherently and tightly locked both parent and child in a grip. Suzanne Raes travels through the intricate conflicts interweaving among her subjects with ease, yet never sacrificing the complex, full-spectrum range of colliding memories. “Where Dragons Live” is a tremendously delicate dissection of legacy and remembrance.

Where Dragons Live premiered at Sheffield DocFest 2024.

Where Dragons Live (2024) Movie Link: IMDb

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