The Brooklyn home of two Orthodox Jewish twin brothers is a shocking, chaotic scene that could be straight out of the TV show “Hoarders.” Stray cats roam through the home’s bug-infested maze of garbage and junk. An overwhelming stench of old kitty litter and spoiled food fills the air. A cleaning crew in protective suits and masks begins the Herculean task of cleaning out the place, under protest from the brothers, who had reluctantly agreed to the cleaning only because their upstairs tenant threatened to stop paying rent.
The home, inherited from their late parents, has become a prison for the brothers.
This sad state of existence for the twins, Abraham and Shraga, is the subject of “Thy Father’s Chair,” a cinéma vérité-style documentary opening Oct. 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The home, inherited from their late parents, has become a prison for the brothers, who are in their 60s, as they obsessively cling to objects from their past.
“Their parents died. They never married. They were never taught how to take care of a house,” filmmaker Antonio Tibaldi said of the twins. “What I felt was interesting was this attachment to objects. Abraham looks at his father’s chair and says he’s not sure if he’s allowed to sit in that chair, and he’s not sure he wants to. To me, that encapsulates the essence of the film: the weight of what you’re supposed to
Nicole Levine, an Israeli acquaintance who owns the cleaning service Home Clean Home, tried to interest Tibaldi in filming an infomercial for her. He declined, but when she later shared photos of the brothers’ disaster-area home, he was intrigued.
Filming took place over 10 days in late 2014 and three days in 2015, followed by eight months of editing. The shooting conditions were difficult, but extracting a narrative thread from many hours of footage was even more challenging, as Tibaldi had just let his camera roll, with no interviews. “I knew when I had good moments,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure what it would add up to.”
Those moments include Abraham talking about the titular chair, Shraga discussing the existence of God, and the brothers’ interaction with the cleaning crew leader, an Israeli named Hanan Edri.
“[Hanan] became almost a father figure” to them, co-director Alex Lora said.
The epilogue ends the film on a brighter note, showing the twins reading Torah in their tidier home.
But the story didn’t end there: Shraga died in late 2016 from complications after back surgery. Tibaldi has tried to contact Abraham a couple of times this year, to no avail.
Lora and Tibaldi have been collaborators since they met at City College of New York when Lora was a student in Tibaldi’s film class. They hope “Thy Father’s Chair” makes an impact with audiences.
“It’s a claustrophobic story in the sense that it’s one location and these guys are not the most appealing guys on the surface,” Lora said, “but I hope [people] connect with them and their humanity and their wish to get a better situation.”
Tibaldi thinks the film raises provocative questions.
“What is identity in terms of connection to your heritage, whether it’s religious or cultural, and what choices do you have in relationship to it?” Tibaldi said. “How are you able to separate from your origin or what you believe is your identity? What is left if you rebel against these things? All this is very interesting to me.
“What we filmed is very specific to [the brothers], and a Jewish audience may have specific interest, but hopefully the fact that it’s so specific can make it universal.”
“Thy Father’s Chair” runs Oct. 20-26 at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, screening at 5 and 7:20 p.m.