I am not a particularly imposing person. I’ve been told I have a warm smile and people just seem to be able to open up and talk to me. So when Shawney Cohen stepped into the Hot Docs industry lounge for our interview it was a surprise to me that he seemed to be a bit unsettled by my presence. It wasn’t actually me, of course, but the idea of talking to a journalist about his film, The Manor, which is an intimate portrait of his family who also happens to own a strip club (the titular “manor”) in Guelph, Ontario.
As he sits down and we get started he very shyly says, “I have my notes here just as a crutch.” I assure him that’s no problem.
The Manor is a very personal film I liked very much, so I plug in my recorders and ask him why he decided to make a film about his admittedly very dysfunctional family.
“The first thing I shot was my father,” Cohen says, “He was 400 pounds sitting in his office, smoking a cigar, speaking in Hebrew, swearing and I had my camera and I just started filming him. I had no intention of making a film. He just jumped into the lens.”
There’s more to that story, of course. What the film doesn’t show is that Cohen didn’t simply appear one day and start making a movie. He had been living in Guelph and working at the club for almost a year when he first began filming his father, and then it just became a habit. “I just kind of got addicted to shooting him.”
“I just showed up there and we didn’t have much of a relationship prior to me working there. So when I was filming I think they just thought I was this film student running around with a camera, like, no one’s going to see this, so what’s the big deal? And in the end I look back and I think that was probably my best asset because it gave me this incredible access which was nice.”
It becomes obvious to me very quickly that the story of why and how this film got made is almost as interesting as the film itself. The film is a very unvarnished look at a dysfunctional family, so I ask the question I’ve been burning to ask since I saw The Manor: what did his family think of it?
“When I first showed my parents the film I was really nervous because I thought that I may have done a little bit more damage [with] just the act of filming them and do they need to see what I thought. In the end they were cool with it and it surprised me,” Cohen says. “I think they were cool with it for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t want to make a story that was overly crafted. There’s a lot of documentaries I like that take a lot of liberties and play with timelines and do things that would make it a better film but aren’t necessarily truthful in terms of how things happened, so I made a decision early on that if I’m going to do this, I’m just going to tell the truth and I’m going to film them as they are and let the chips fall where they may and let this be a vérité film about our lives. But in doing that you have to be completely honest with yourself and what you’re shooting and not hold back. That’s the only way this could work. I think they appreciated that. What could they say? This was a truthful depiction of us.”
The second, and possibly most important, reason for his family’s reaction is that they really are quite thick skinned. After being in the strip bar business for 30 years, Cohen’s father is certainly used to being called names and judged by his cover.
“My mother? Well, my mother, the first thing she said she looked at my father after the screening and said “Roger that’s exactly you!” and then she started to laugh.”
Right. But when your film is opening the largest documentary film festival in North America, are you not concerned that it will be open season on your family? Yes, it certainly seems that he is.
“I am a little worried. I didn’t quite expect it to blow up like this,” he says. “We’ll see what happens, it’s quite early. I think my parents can take care of themselves and answer questions, but I don’t know if we’re prepared for a lot of the scrutiny. I hope we are. I hope that a lesson can be learned from us and people will take something away from it and maybe apply that to their own families. But it’s a bit nerve-wracking.”
There are lots of lessons in The Manor – about communication, about transparency, about being honest with ourselves, about addiction, about what it means to be a son – and Cohen really hopes that the film can help viewers in relationships with their own family. For me, however, it’s clear that the lessons learned best from this film were for Cohen himself.
“After all this co-dependence and verbal abuse and addiction and problems I think what I realized was I have no idea what my parents relationship is really about. And as a son, I think that’s okay, you know? They’ve been married for 40 years and sometimes kids just don’t get what their parents are about,” Cohen says.
When it came time to edit the film and he was faced with watching everything he had shot, he went through a bit of a depression. “I began to realize halfway through the edit that this is quite a tragedy. When you grow up in a scenario like this you think it’s quite normal, but when you’re looking at the footage and you’re making serious decisions you realize this is a tragedy and that became very, very difficult. I probably wasn’t the most friendly guy during the edit process because you’re trying to get it right and it’s your family and it’s hard to abandon. It was definitely the hardest part of making this film.”
“I think I went through a profound journey. I’m definitely closer with my family, they’re closer to me. I guess I was naive a little bit thinking that I could change them by making this film because not much has changed and that’s what I found fascinating. But we’re still together. Families do what they do. People don’t change.”
Once Cohen discovered he probably had the makings of a film, he began looking for funding. He pitched the film at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and won out over films about large-scale political issues like the Egyptian revolution. The film then received a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute and the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Completion Fund. With that cash in hand, Cohen hired a spectacular editor, a well known producer and a great composer. He wanted the production values to be really high and once he was satisfied with his team he began approaching broadcasters.
Without question The Manor has been a success, and one that Cohen is proud of. KinoSmith acquired distribution rights to the film just last week, which guarantees Canadians will get a chance to see this film.
I ask Cohen what’s next and he’s a bit coy. It seems he doesn’t like talking too much about what’s coming next until things are final and well underway, but he acknowledges that he’s going to stay with documentaries for now. “I will say this,” he begins, “I think working on a film for four and a half years you want to be very very selective about what you do next. A lot of filmmakers just jump into an idea that they thought up in a week and two years in it’s like what am I doing? So I really want to take my time and find a project that fits for me.”
Well, whatever it is, it’s going to be great. I thank Cohen for making such a wonderful and deeply personal film and pack up my things.
And as I’m leaving, I realize: he didn’t use his notes once.
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