A powerful, personal story is shared in the new documentary, Unbroken Glass, but the cinematic telling of that story fails to do it justice. Director Dinesh Das Sabu covers a lot of territory in under an hour as he investigates his complicated family history, informed heavily by tragedy. That history is certainly compelling, but structural problems and rather indifferent aesthetics limit the possibilities of the subject matter.
To be fair, this is the first feature by a very young filmmaker—an up-and-comer in the ranks of Chicago documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films. And it surely must be hard to make the nuts and bolts of movie production a priority when you are revealing so many private and painful areas of your life.
Those revelations include Sabu being orphaned at the age of six. The child of Indian immigrants, he was raised by two older siblings, both of whom have stronger memories of his parents’ troubled marriage. At the center of the family’s difficulties was the mother’s schizophrenia, ultimately leading to her suicide. As Sabu interviews other family members, it becomes clear depression and mental illness touched many other lives in their circles.
Unbroken Glass does offer some valuable insights into how the survivors of tragedies cope and it is interesting to see depression through an Indian-American perspective, given the cultural stereotype of an always chipper, high-achieving ethnic group.
But what starts off looking like a probing investigation into his family’s troubles turns into a kind of meandering self-examination of Sabu’s own depression. The sequencing of interviews takes the focus off the director’s immediate family. The intriguing aspect of growing up largely without adult supervision is left thinly detailed. A journey back to India to attend a distant relative’s wedding promises a fuller portrait that never comes into focus, and the movie ends very abruptly.
Unbroken Glass will surely be better received when it finds its natural home on a PBS showcase like P.O.V. or Independent Lens. The small screen will be more forgiving of both its standard-issue interview footage and its 57-minute running time.
Dinesh Das Sabu will participate in Q&A sessions after each screening of Unbroken Glass at the Gene Siskel Film Center during its opening run. That’s probably the best rationale for seeing the documentary in a theater. The movie is certainly a conversation starter and I suspect the post-film chats may illuminate this unique family saga better than the film would on its own.
Unbroken Glass. Written and directed by Dinesh Das Sabu. Cinematography by Dinesh Das Sabu. 57 mins. No MPAA rating.
Opens Friday, February 17 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.