Siblings and Juilliard-trained pianists, The 5 Browns were on top of the world after three #1 records and appearances on 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and more. But beneath the surface of their success loomed a terrible secret: their father, who managed their careers, was responsible for years of sexual abuse against the three sisters. Long before #MeToo, and well aware that their story would devastate their family and possibly the group, the young women bravely spoke out. THE 5 BROWNS: DIGGING THROUGH THE DARKNESS follows the siblings’ search for healing through the transformative power of music.
Montclair Film Festival had the opportunity to talk to Director Ben Niles about his profound and inspiring documentary.
How do you describe your documentary, THE 5 BROWNS, in your own words?
This is an uplifting film about five brave siblings coming to grips with a dark family secret, forcing them to come together like never before as they learn to heal as individuals while collectively fighting for social justice. It is a film about persistence and truth in life and art and the transformative power of music.
What made you want to tell this particular story?
I first met The 5 Browns while working on a music video for them in the fall of 2015. We connected quickly, but I had no intention of pursuing a documentary. I didn’t want to pry into their personal lives and felt their story — or what I thought I knew of their story — might only yield an account of old news stories about their abuse. Why would they want to relive all that pain and what good would that serve either of us?
But I was wrong.
Their father, Keith Brown, was successfully convicted and sent to prison 15 years after the abuse of his daughters occurred. “We were very lucky to have been given the opportunity to prosecute my father,” says Deondra Brown. “Thankfully, the statute of limitations in the state of Utah allowed it, but we soon realized that most victims don’t have this opportunity! In some states, you’re only allowed until your early 20s to be able to prosecute, and so when a victim finally has come to a point in their lives where they feel comfortable and they feel strong enough to be able to prosecute, the doors are closed.” In fact, one of the sisters would have levied charges against her father in NY but the SOL had expired. (See Julianne Moore’s recent OpEd in The Daily News, March 2, 2018, addressing this issue: “It’s time to finally deliver justice for New York’s child sex abuse survivors.” )
This realization became the impetus for Deondra and Desirae to create The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, become advocates and craft legislation (bill S.2397) with Senators Harry Reid (NV) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) to end the statute of limitations for child sex abuse in all 50 states.
It was also part of the inspiration to tell their story and make this film.
But there was another wrinkle that interested me greatly. The group was about to embark on a new recording, The Little Tin Box, compiled of classical music they had played as children. This new record would represent a time in their healing process where they were “trying to salvage” a part of their childhood by revisiting the music that had given them solace in their youth.
It became more and more clear to me that their story was far bigger than the abuse and was moving forward, not mired in the past. Each one of them was healing in profoundly different ways, but also collectively as five siblings playing music together. Only now it was different.
How were you able to convince all the siblings and their mother to participate in the filming of THE 5 BROWNS?
I had several phone calls with The 5 Browns to discuss direction and approach, and our collective vision was very similar, so that wasn’t a big issue. We didn’t have a contract in place for about four months, but once I showed them some early clips they initiated a more formal relationship. It was a risk on my part, I suppose, because they could have walked away, but dealing with a sensitive story like theirs they had a lot to risk as well, so I just felt I had to deliver and all would be fine, which is what happened.
Their mother Lisa was a different story altogether. They were already estranged from her and initially everyone was reluctant to give her and Keith—her husband and their abuser—a voice in the film. Still, she was an integral part of the story, so it was decided I would approach her carefully. She and I danced around the topic of the abuse via email and a few calls. My aim was like any other interview: to start slowly and let the conversation unfold, inching towards more complicated questions.
To her credit, she called about two days before our interview was to take place and bluntly asked, “Are you going to ask me questions about my husband’s incarceration?” To which I replied, “Yes.” Melody Brown was incredulous to how her mother had posed the question. “Her husband’s incarceration? How about, ‘Are you going to ask me questions about my daughters’ abuse?’”
This was a non-starter for her, but I also wasn’t prepared to let her dictate the parameters of our meeting, so we both agreed amicably to forego the interview. It wasn’t until my next trip to Salt Lake that I had a change of heart. I had just heard an interview on NPR with another doc filmmaker, and she was being criticized a bit for not interviewing police officers for her film, which was otherwise getting great reviews. This director had apparently interviewed the police but was put off by their “company speak” and opted to keep them out. A fair decision, to be sure, and every film is different, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Don’t you think the audience would see through their guarded answers?”
Easy for me to say, but it did compel me to reconsider interviewing Lisa Brown after all. Everyone was asking me about “the mother” so it seemed foolish to skip the interview altogether, even if she didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. I could see how things panned out later, but if I never did the interview then that would always be a question of “what if?”
In the end I did have to swallow my pride and agree to her terms, but I was very glad that I did and would do it again tomorrow. Sometimes people just convey or project what you’re looking for without you having to address issues head on. The elephant was in the room and her decision NOT to address it made it even more glaring and spoke volumes about her as their mother.
How did you elicit such intimate and revealing responses from all 5 during the filmed interviews, especially since at least one of them was obviously reluctant to publicly discuss her childhood?
Time. Building relationships with people takes time and there’s just no other way to do it.
My first interviews with T5Bs were very brief, maybe 20-25 minutes, in a hotel room in Iowa. They were touring and I flew out to join them for 2-3 days. I was simply trying to get a sample reel together so I could start fundraising, and we all agreed that longer, more in-depth interviews would take place at a later time. Still, I needed to ask them questions about everything from piano playing to their abuse in a very brief interview. After 4 or 5 easy questions I would then say, “Okay, now I am going to ask you about your father,” which was awkward for me. Still, they were all amenable and very gracious and understanding. This provided some useful footage for my immediate needs but nothing like interviews that would take place 6-12 months later. By then they had seen more bits of the footage and felt more and more secure with my approach.
As an aside, I told a potential sales agent at the IFP Conference in NYC that I was sharing footage with T5Bs and he jumped all over me. “Why on earth would you do that?” he asked incredulously. I was dealing with a very sensitive story and felt I had nothing to hide from the group. They had also shown me a great deal of respect and given me total creative control and felt it would only help build their trust. They are true artists in this sense and recognized I was the filmmaker and left me alone. Still, he thought I was foolish to do this and that sharing footage with “my subjects” would probably jeopardize the film. It didn’t.
Melody has a different approach from her sisters, Desirae and Deondra, with her healing process. She was very direct with me from the get-go that she might be less forthcoming about certain aspects of the abuse. I was not the least bit put off by this and appreciated and respected her candor and right to deal with the abuse on her own terms. I learned through Melody that “everyone heals differently” and that her personal experience would actually provide another powerful layer to the overall story. By the third or fourth interview we had a very good understanding of one another and she opened up dramatically. We laughed before our last interview when she said, “Ben, every time I see you coming it’s like the Grim Reaper and I have to open up all over again.” Indeed!
It’s extremely gratifying as a filmmaker (and a person) to connect with people on that level, bonding over time and building a trust that is real and lasting. But I also think the filmmaking process was cathartic for them all and may have helped in the healing process in some small way. I hope so.
What was the Browns’ reaction to the final cut of the film?
Very positive, but like any filmmaker I was nervous about sharing the film with my “subjects.” Yes, they had seen footage here and there but this was different. I was fairly confident they would like the film but more nervous about how they might respond emotionally. It’s one thing to sit for interviews and be followed around by a camera but seeing your entire life condensed and put before you can be jarring even in the most positive of situations.
And there was good reason for my anxiety.
Early on in the production I shared about 20 minutes of footage with the group, sending them all a link (they live in 3 different states) and setting up a conference call. But after the clips were viewed, one of the Browns was unable to return to the call. It was just too much to deal with emotionally. Although I had tried to set up the clips as best as possible, I was gutted by what I had done to upset them. This was a real lesson for me.
A few months later we had a fundraiser in NYC and Desirae, Gregory and Ryan attended. Although they had seen the sample reel they had never watched it with an audience. The experience was totally different and they were admittedly caught off guard seeing others share in the emotion of their story.
They are very pleased with the outcome of the film and looking forward to attending Montclair and taking part in the post-screening Q&As. Still, I’m sure there’s some anxiety about sharing their story with a large audience, but I am confident they will be greeted warmly.
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
101, maybe! It is critical that you do your homework and research and really feel strongly about the people/story you’re attempting to tell. It will be all-consuming, so you must be prepared to live with this for a considerable time. Years.
Toughen up. You will have some very high moments as well as some real disappointment along the way. No story is a slam-dunk and you’re always pitching it to various people for funding, access, rights, you name it, and it can get tiresome. But don’t try to do it all by yourself. Surround yourself with good advisers and talent, listen carefully, and trust your gut.
As documentary filmmakers we’re all damn lucky to be invited into people’s lives, so while it’s a lot of work, it’s very gratifying and you’ll probably develop relationships and have experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
What do you hope MFF audiences will take away from your film?
I hope they will see the true courage and bravery The 5 Browns have shown in telling their story, so other survivors of abuse might speak out and begin to heal. They were speaking out and effectively blowing up their family, risking their music careers and relationships, a decade before anyone had heard of the #MeToo movement. I see them as modern-day heroes and feel others should too.
What are you most looking forward to at MFF18?
I’ve had the pleasure of attending Montclair before as a filmmaker and always appreciate and look forward to the stellar program that Tom Hall puts together. The line-up this year is impressive, as always, and I am honored to be included along with so many terrific filmmakers. Montclair is a top-notch festival with compelling and thoughtful programs, special events, and yes, parties! But with so, so many films to see, you’ll likely find me in the theater.
Director Ben Niles and some or all of The 5 Browns will attend screenings of THE 5 BROWNS: DIGGING THROUGH THE DARKNESS on: April 27, 8:00pm at the Clairidge Cinemas, April 28, 12:00pm at the MKA Upper School, and May 1, 11:30am at the Clairidge Cinemas.
Interview by MFF Blogger Robin Naphtali