SALT LAKE CITY — People packed into the auditorium of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center Wednesday night to watch a screening of “The 5 Browns: Digging through Darkness.” No tickets were left available.
The documentary tells the story of The 5 Browns, a group of five Utah siblings known worldwide for both their prodigious piano skills and for speaking up about their father’s childhood sexual abuse of the three daughters: Desirae, Deondra and Melody Brown.
But despite the heaviness of the topic, the film is not about the salacious details of the abuse but rather about music, hope and life after traumatic events, explained documentary filmmaker Ben Niles, director of “Digging through Darkness,” in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
“I hope people will give the film a chance. … I hope people will walk out and recognize that there’s more to (The 5 Browns) than their abuse,” Niles said.
The Browns, the three sisters and their two brothers, Gregory and Ryan, hope this documentary starts hard conversations that many people need to have.
“Everyone here knows someone (who has been affected by sexual abuse,) whether they know it or not,” Desirae Brown said during the Q&A session after the screening moderated by RadioWest's Doug Fabrizio, referencing a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that estimates that about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
Those difficult conversations should involve both talking and listening, Gregory Brown told the Deseret News.
“It should be clear to anyone who watches the film how hard it can be to talk about this kind of stuff, but (those conversations) can be a little hope for anyone going through something that’s painful or traumatic,” he said.
The documentary includes Brown home videos, filmed and narrated by Keith Brown,the family's father who is now serving time at the Utah State Prison for one count of sodomy on a child and two counts of sex abuse of a child.
The footage shows the Brown children playing the piano both together and separately through their quick rise to fame after they were accepted into the Juilliard School — the first group of five siblings to all attend.
In the documentary, Desirae, Deondra, and Melody Brown speak about how they finally managed to confide in each other regarding their father's abuse.
The film also reveals how the siblings went from attempting to salvage their family relationships to privately filing charges against their father, as well as the aftermath of their private matters being made public following their parents’ car crash on Valentine’s Day, 2007 — four days after the filing.
Making the documentary
Niles met the Brown siblings while working on his 2007 film, "Note By Note: The Making Of Steinway L1037." Although he knew parts of their story, he wasn’t sure “if there was enough in the present,” he said, for him to go ahead. But he soon realized just how relevant the Browns' story still was.
“(The sisters) came out with all of this way before the #MeToo movement,” Niles said.
Although the siblings were at first apprehensive about making a documentary, they gave Niles carte blanche to create the film he envisioned.
“That speaks volumes to them as artists. I didn’t try to tell them how to play the piano and they didn’t try to tell me how to make the film,” Niles said during the Q&A session.
While film address many previously unanswered questions, at its core, the film gets at how the Browns have moved forward after the abuse came to light and the steps they have taken in their ongoing healing process.
Life after abuse
There are many ways victims of sexual abuse approach the healing process, and "Digging Through Darkness" details the different ways the three sisters have dealt with their trauma. Deondra and Desirae Brown started the nonprofit organization Foundation for Survivors of Abuse, petitioning legislators, including those in Utah and New York, to change laws that will help survivors prosecute their abusers. Melody Brown has found solace with her family in Utah.
“Every survivor needs to heal in their own time and their own way," Ryan Brown said. "You can’t rush these kinds of things. Even though we are The 5 Browns, we are all individuals as well. We heal in different ways.”
But one thing they can all agree on is the power that music has to heal.
“The music can transcend the awfulness,” Ryan Brown said.
In the documentary, the group’s music weaves through their story, through home videos, TV appearances, performances and the recent recordings for their upcoming album — “Little Tin Box.”
“What ties (the story) all together is the music and our relationships,” said Deondra Brown in a Q&A session.
“Little Tin Box” will follow their very personal 2013 album “The 5 Browns: The Rite of Spring."
Melody Brown described “The Rite of Spring” as the group’s “angst album,” whereas the new album — with a release date sometime next year — is a new part of healing, “clearing the air, looking back and feel some joy,” she said.
"Little Tin Box" is a musical reflection of the siblings’ childhood, including music they performed or listened to as children. The title refers to the small treasures children keep in little boxes — the good memories. Memories, said Deondra Brown, that they continue to make.
“We’re still happy. We still love each other. We’re going to keep performing and it’s never gonna change.”
If you go …1 comment on this story
What: "The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness"
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Dr.
When: Thursday, June 7, 7 p.m.
How much: Free
What: The 5 Browns in concert
When: Saturday, June 9, 8 p.m.
Where: Kenley Amphitheater, 403 N Wasatch Dr, Layton
How much: $29
What: The 5 Browns in concert
When: Saturday, January 26, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: TBA