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How to Make a Doc about Your Family While Keeping Your Sanity

How to Make a Doc about Your Family While Keeping Your Sanity

Shawney Cohen is a filmmaker, but he also works at the family business, which wouldn’t be so unusual if the business wasn’t a small town strip club in Canada. Following in the footsteps of other personal documentarians like Ross McElwee and Doug Block, Cohen delves into the story of his dysfunctional family in his debut feature “The Manor,” which opened the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in April and makes its N.Y. premiere at DOC NYC on Friday night.

Cohen spent three years shooting the film and 15 months editing down the more than 200 hours of footage. Of course, he was concerned about the critical response, but more important than the reviews was his family’s response. While Cohen’s film depicts his family with love and respect, it doesn’t gloss over difficult elements, including his father’s struggle with obesity, his mother’s anorexia and their strained relationship. Here Cohen provides tips on how to make a personal documentary about your family without losing your mind:

Immediately after the lights went up my mother looked directly at my father and whispered, “Roger, that’s exactly you.” I felt as though a ten thousand-pound weight had been lifted.

My family had just watched ‘The Manor’ in a private screening a few days before the opening night debut at Hot Docs. I’d spent the last five years making a film about our dysfunctional lives. I like to think my parents and my brother accepted the film because it’s a truthful and balanced portrait of who we are, and not an exercise in reality show exploitation style filmmaking.

Since that first screening, I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to my parents and brother, who later joined me on stage at the actual premiere. Directing ‘The Manor’ was easily the most difficult project I’ve ever taken on and at times it felt like an act of pure insanity, but I’m proud of the end result. Here are a few things I’ve learned from the process and some advice for any filmmaker thinking about shooting a personal documentary about their own family.

What The Hell Am I Doing?

Before you begin, admit you will never truly be comfortable with the idea of putting yourself and your family out there for the world to see. I’m certain even the most seasoned filmmakers committed to directing a personal documentary would feel this way. We are filmmakers but we are also human. That occasional voice in your head saying “What the hell am I doing?” is not only healthy for your process, it will push you to make a better, more accurate film.

With material so personal there will undoubtedly be times when you lose perspective and feel adrift. Don’t go it alone. Surround yourself with a supportive crew who will help you stay objective but are also willing to point out the tougher moments you shouldn’t shy away from. Take solace in the fact you are not the only filmmaker to ever go through this.

Find your ‘Running Stumbled’

Before shooting The Manor, I was at a festival and saw an extraordinary personal doc called “Running Stumbled” directed by John Maringouin. John shows up on Easter Sunday to visit his family after twenty-five years and becomes a catalyst for an all-out war. His parents are pill popping addicts living on the brink of death under a mountain of cat shit in their New Orleans suburban home. I loved the film. It was liberating to see another filmmaker with the courage to film his own dysfunctional family with such grittiness and comedy.

The Art of Two Hats

If you’re making a personal doc — especially about your family, you will most likely need to be in the film in some form or another. People want to know you are as much a part of the journey and have just as much to lose as the people you are filming. Otherwise you run the risk of losing your audiences’ trust. Understand this puts you in a very complicated position. During the process of making The Manor, I was wearing two hats: one of son and strip-club manager, and the other of director. In Doug Block’s “Ten Rules of Personal Documentary Filmmaking,” he states: “You’re not really you. You’re just a character in a story.” He is absolutely right. Audiences will always expect a good story, which means all of those universal film conventions that contribute to telling a good story still apply. Personal doc or not, you still need believable character growth, strong structure, and, in my experience, a little self-deprecating humor never hurts.

Ethical Editing

In my first year of filming “The Manor,” I was convinced I needed to shoot everything, no matter how dark the dysfunction. Part of me felt this was the only way to stay objective. When the film eventually began to take shape in the edit, it became obvious some of our footage had the potential to create an extra unintentional layer that may have been seriously detrimental to my parents’ relationship. There became a fine balance in choosing the scenes which helped convey a good story but where too exploitative. Editing a personal doc is nerve-racking. When cutting your film, it’s very important to make the distinction between your family ethics and your filmmaking ethics. Remember you are the one who needs to live with the people you’ve documented for the rest of your life.

Watch the trailer for “The Manor” below:

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