After spending a decade as a film animator, Shawney Cohen got burnt out and decided it was time to take a break from his career to spend some time working at the family business. It just so happens that business was The Manor, a strip club located 40 miles west of Toronto, Canada.
"I reached a point in my early thirties where I was just kind of trying to figure out what to do," Cohen said. "But I always kind of avoided the strip club. It was part of my life, but I just reached a point where my parents were in their sixties and I didn't spend much time with my brother, so it seemed like a good idea to try working there. In retrospect, just jumping into that business was a bit naive because I had no experience. I thought it would be an easy gig, but it wasn't. It was tricky."
The first week Cohen worked there he tried to break up a fight in the champagne room and got pushed through a plate glass window.
"It occurred to me then that maybe this was a mistake," he said.
But Cohen persisted, and in the process decided to start taking out his camera and shooting ongoings at the club as well as his family and their relationship to the business and to each other.
"The first thing I shot was my father," Cohen said. "He was sitting in his office, 400 pounds, smoking a cigar and swearing in Hebrew. I had no intention at that point of making a documentary but I started filming him and he just jumped into the lens."
Slowly but surely, Cohen decided to start actively pursuing the idea of turning the footage into a film.
"I think once I built trust with my family and the employees at the club it got more serious," he said. "It's important to know that I didn't decide to make a film immediately."
Over three years of shooting (culminating in 200+ hours of footage) and 15 months in the editing room, "The Manor" came together. And last night it opened the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival -- the first debut film from a Canadian filmmaker to do so in the festival's 20 year history. And with good reason. "The Manor" is a fascinating, respectful depiction of a very dysfunctional family that will likely be a major highlight on this summer film festival circuit.
The film could have easily come across as exploitative or slight, but Cohen's focus on his family over the hijinks at the strip club allows "The Manor" to rise to the ranks of some of the best family portrait documentaries.
"The core of the film is really about my parents' relationship," Cohen said. "It wasn't until I began filming my mother that I knew that there was an important story here. She struggles with addictions and eating disorders and I felt that she rarely talked about it in public. She didn't talk about it with us. She was very private about it. The second I started filming her, it was amazing. She just opened up to the camera in a way I didn't expect. I thought that was important for her. She began to use the camera as a therapeutic tool to tell us how she felt about her life and her relationship with my father and the strip club. The film is really about their relationship and everything else -- the bar, my brother and I -- are just a dimension of that."
Cohen said his family grew to really trust his project and he felt a responsibility to make "The Manor" as honest a documentary as possible.
"There are a lot of films I watch that are very constructed," he explained. "Great films, but I felt the only way this would work is if we let the story arcs unfold naturally and be as truthful as possible."
That approach was helpful in many ways. When Cohen showed it to his parents for the first time, he was very nervous because he'd thought maybe he'd pushed the limits too much and the act of him filming could have caused damage to their relationship. Be he was wrong.
"Really, I think they appreciated the truthfulness of it," he said. "Right after the screening, my mother looked at my father and said 'Roger, that's exactly how you are' and then she laughed. It occurred to me then that I don't really understand my parents' relationship. It's funny to say that but I think some kids just don't understand that. And that's okay. Shortly after that they went on a trip to the Bahamas together. Despite all this dysfunction and verbal abuse and co-dependence and craziness, they persevere. And I find that amazing."
Despite already gaining considerable attention for "The Manor" (with surely much more to come), Cohen said he'll continue to work at the bar.
"I think people find that unusual, I don't find that unusual," he said. "I work Sundays and Mondays. But I am planning a new film. I want to think long and hard about what the perfect fit will be so I don't like to talk about it. When you work on a film for four or five years you want to make sure you commit to it. But I want to continue making documentaries for sure. I feel like filmmaking is in my blood."