Howard Brookner was a New York filmmaker who made two well-received feature documentaries capturing the exciting creative hub that the city was in the 70s and 80s. In 1989, just as his first Hollywood feature debut was about to be released, he died prematurely of AIDS at the age of 34. His movies were then largely forgotten, even in their physical form: a large number of film canisters were stored in a bunker and remained untouched for almost 30 years.
Howard’s nephew Aaron Brookner, a filmmaker himself, considered his uncle to be his “hero”, and when he started to unearth forgotten footage and notebooks, he began to distinguish the professional from the close relative, and decided to revive his memory. The result is a deeply personal documentary that mixes family-life footage with archive material of Howard at work. There is a large focus on Howard’s fact-based film on novelist William Burroughs, but also many interviews by family and friends who relate anecdotes about his first steps into filmmaking, their reaction to his homosexuality, and finally coming to terms with his illness.
Naturally, his premature death, rendered more poignant through the accounts detailing his last days by those who knew him, inevitably makes the documentary a touching experience. Aaron’s main intention, however, is to keep his uncle’s legacy alive rather than move the audience with a sad personal story. In that sense, he partially succeeds in presenting Howard the director and imparting a sense of his working style and ethos, but even when the feature focuses on his work, nostalgia prevails.
Uncle Howard invites viewers to reflect on the significance of memories and how recording them, archiving them or reviving them changes our perception of what was experienced. It also acts as a portrait of New York’s quirky cultural scene of the time. Ultimately, however, there is perhaps not enough to grip the audience unless one is closely familiar with Howard Brookner himself, his films, or the cultural sphere he belonged to. As a biographical narrative it is low-key and elegantly presented, but it lacks the elements that would make the documentary universally appealing.
Uncle Howard is released nationwide on 16th December 2016.
Watch the trailer for Uncle Howard here: