Focus on Festivals

Hot Docs 2013: The Manor

Courtesy Hot Docs

How do you make sense of the world after growing up in a strip club, The Manor, where your parents are at opposite ends of the eating disorder spectrum, your closest non-family mentor is a heroin dealer and the future likely includes inheriting the empire? If you’re Shawney Cohen, you make a film about it.

The first time Cohen rolled with a DSLR camera in his father’s office, his dad was on the phone to a friend in Israel who was discussing bribing police officers. “And he just jumped into the lens,” recalls Cohen. “I had been a photographer and when I started filming him, he was just this amazing presence. [At the time,] I had no intention of making a documentary film.”

But something drew him into making a film about the family business. Perhaps it was the contrast between the graphic neon beauty of the strip club and the static tragedy of its denizens. From the minimalist design of the individual signs to their judicious placement inside and out of The Manor, there’s a sensibility that seems to be reflected in Cohen’s cinematography and editing that aligns to the artistic style called negative space.

On the surface, nothing much seems to happen in The Manor, Hot Docs 2013’s opening night film. And yet at the same time it does—it’s just that nobody is terribly reactive to it. And that’s at least half of documentary cinema, to show life unadorned. It would have been easy to exploit the strippers or staff at The Manor. The strippers and staff were, after all, in a doubly vulnerable situation, since the owner’s son was documenting them. But they seemed to want to be in the film, and Shawney Cohen smartly included them only as much as was necessary to paint his hyper-realistic picture.

The film evolved slowly. Cohen became “addicted” to filming his larger-than-life father, the patriarch of The Manor. After shooting 70 to 80 hours, he realised that his footage was worthy of a doc. At that point he easily obtained consent to continue shooting material. The family was already accustomed to the process, so it was then a matter of bringing in and acclimatizing additional crew, as needed. The Manor is a classic portrait of a family in crisis. Cohen Sr. is a hard-bitten man with little tolerance for weakness. He’s developed a tough skin after running a strip club for 30 years. On the other hand, his wife appears to be wasting away into a void of nothingness and despair. Early on in the film, Shawney Cohen shows his perilously skinny mother bowling in a moment of self-deprecation: “Here goes a gutter ball… See? I told you.”

After seeing the film, Cohen’s mother indicated that the way his father had been represented was accurate. Of his mother, Cohen said, “In many ways, I think the filmmaking process has been therapeutic for her. The things she shared in the film are not things she usually talks about. For some reason, when I turned the camera on, she really opened up.”

Putting himself in the film was only done by necessity. Shawney Cohen believes that his own problems pale in comparison to others. He believes that The Manor is really his parents’ story and that putting more of himself in it would have been pretentious.

Showing his parents a cut of the film felt like the longest 80 minutes of Cohen’s life. He was afraid that they would react adversely to the honest way that they had been portrayed. Turns out his fears, which took a couple of days to calm, were unfounded. “In many ways, this film has brought us closer together.”

Click here for POV’s full list of Hot Docs previews.

Screenings:
Thu, Apr 25 9:30 PM
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Mon, Apr 29 12:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1