Father Unknown is a unique documentary film experience, captured on a camera phone, by filmmaker David Quint as he struggles with loneliness and disconnection from those closest to him. He records a journey with the father he longs to know more intimately, a journey that ultimately exposes family secrets and brings healing to David and his family.
We spoke with David about the experience of making this film.
Can you describe what you were experiencing at the beginning of the film when you talked about feeling some distance from other people?
I had carried a painful feeling of loneliness inside for as long as I could remember. Not the kind of loneliness that you feel when you’re away at summer camp for the first time but a deeper loneliness that is there even when you are with other people, with friends, with family. Much of the time it was just below the level of consciousness which made it hard to identify or put into words.
I’m guessing no one would have guessed I felt the way I did. I was married, had a family, and friends. But I still felt like something wasn’t right. Because the feeling was so painful and seemed impossible to articulate, I didn’t speak about it to anyone. Secretly, I assumed that the only reason I felt that way is because there was something wrong with me.
How did you come to the conclusion that this was connected to what your father had gone through?
The older I got, the more pervasive the loneliness became. And the more energy it took to ignore those painful feelings. I always had this longing to feel connected to people, especially my family, and for there to be a genuine closeness between us. But that isn’t how things were. My father often felt distant to me. At other times he was mercurial and I was afraid of him. I could see that there were other families that had an openness and connection between the family members. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t happen in mine. The truth is, I felt deeply hurt, angry and alone about it.
At the same time, I found myself replaying painful experiences from my childhood, over and over in my mind. The more I thought about what I had experienced, the more I wondered about what “normal” was supposed to be like. Were things like this for my father? Had his childhood been the same way?
The more I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t know much at all about my father’s childhood at all. He rarely spoke of it. No one really did. He said he had lived at a castle in Switzerland. Other children lived there too. Eventually, I figured out that what he was describing had been an orphanage.
deep inside, I had always longed for my father to let me see the real him, the human being inside
Because no one talked about this, I eventually assumed there were secrets buried in the past. And I could not stop thinking about what they might be.
You made the decision to explore your father’s past and it seems to have taken some prodding to get your father to agree. Do you think you would have pursued this without his involvement?
I would have searched for answers even if my father had not wanted to return to the orphanage in Switzerland fifty-five years later. Finding as many of the missing pieces lost in the past and unlocking the things that were hidden in the generations of family silence became something that I knew I had to do, even if it was by myself. Fortunately, he agreed to go with me on the trip. Making the journey together lead to some incredible revelations and unlocked profound healing for each of us as well as others. Making that trip alone, would have been good but so many of the things that brought us closer to each other never would have happened.
So, you and your father make your way to Switzerland and visit the orphanage where your dad lived as a child. He even meets up with Sepp, a friend from his days there. However, later, your father awakens from a dream about Sepp and breaks down in tears, and seems unsure of where he is. For the viewer, this scene is troubling. How were you feeling while this was happening? Did you have any regrets about urging your father to confront this part of his past?
I felt utterly terrified and afraid. My father was so disoriented and emotionally overwhelmed and I felt like I was five years old. It was hard to see my own father in such a moment of weakness. I had never really seen him that way before. And certainly as men we have been conditioned to always be strong, to not cry, to not show fear. Yet here I was, feeling as though the roles had flipped, like I was the father and he was the son. Over those few hours I felt an intense sense of regret and guilt for having pushed so hard for him to return to such a painful past. And yet deep inside, I had always longed for my father to let me see the real him, the human being inside. Allowing me, his son, to see him in such a vulnerable state was the beginning of everything changing.
You and your dad eventually discover the identity of his father and connect with a half-brother. How has this experience and the discovery of his family changed your dad, and how has it changed your relationship with your father?
This feeling is so fantastic and the implications so far reaching, that it cannot be completely captured in words! My father now has the pieces he needs to work toward wholeness, to integrate the past and the present in the here and now. When pieces of ourselves have been shut down or cut off, we cannot ever feel truly whole. Today, I have a relationship with my father that I never thought was possible. We are closer than ever before. We talk almost every day. The experience of Father Unknown has brought my entire family so much closer as though a curse has been lifted. And it has allowed the pain of the past to be explored, talked about, learned from and integrated into our lives.
The relationships in my life have become far more authentic and human and that makes all of the difference in the world. Do I still feel loneliness sometimes? Yes, but not chronically like before. Is it still uncomfortable when I happen to remember a painful moment from the past? Yes. But far, far less than it once was. And now there is room for lots of happy stuff too!
How has your life changed through the process of making this film?
The pain that I had been holding deep inside, that seemed as though it would never go away, is lessened, transformed. It’s integrating into the fabric of my life. Each day I get a little better at accepting the reality of what happened to my father and how that impacted me. Sharing this story of loneliness and longing has brought me an incredible experience of connection to others. My father and I travel with the film and speak afterwards to organizations, groups and at film festivals. Sharing our story together has been a gift beyond words.
I have become part of the board of Adoption Search Resource Connection, a Non-Profit that promotes healing and understanding about the impacts of relinquishment and adoption. I’m also part of a great men’s group here in Denver that has been so valuable for me. Being willing to face the sadness and pain has allowed me to experience genuine happiness and joy too. And that is priceless.
Finally, can you provide a brief coda to the film and update us on anything new you’ve learned about the family? Have there been additional visits to the family in Europe?
After my dad and I returned home from the Father Unknown trip, the Kinzler family traveled to America for the very first time and we were all able to be together for a week here in Colorado. I refer to it as our first ever Family Union on my father’s side of the family.
Since then, I stay in touch with my new cousins regularly. And my dad and his brother, Willy, Skype together on a regular basis. It is so cool to be building these new connections with family!
Also, through Ancestry.com, my dad and I both had our DNA tested to further fill in the family tree. That project has lead to additional discoveries of new family that completely blew us away: There are two other adult adoptees that had been relinquished at birth that we have connected with. So even now, pieces are continuing to fall into place as our journey continues.