‘The Manor” is making its premiere at the prestigious Hot Docs festival in Toronto this week and, quite frankly, I’m not sure if it is “good for the Jews.” I can say, however, that it is a fascinating and quite sad first-person documentary about a one-of-a-kind family that, once you’ve seen it, you can’t get out of your head.

The film is directed by Shawney Cohen who is “to the Manor born,” as it were, of a successful Canadian strip club. His father, a tough but fair businessman who works diligently to keep his operation on the right side of the law, has a somewhat cold exterior. To outsiders, his cigar-chomping, cash register-counting demeanor and profound obesity may call to mind anti-Semitic cartoons.

When we meet Dad he is 400 lbs. Mom, on the other hand, is at around 85 lbs., and at a point where her eating disorder is seriously threatening her life. Also in the family is a younger brother, who is eager to join the family business, despite Shawney’s insistence that its exploitative nature is what’s tearing the family apart.

It may sound like a reality television train wreck, but that isn’t Cohen’s style. It is a well-observed, nuanced cinema verité that leaves an indelible impression. Most striking is how everyone in the family seems quite aware and willing to discuss their unhappiness, but is unable to do anything to change it.

Matriarch Brenda Cohen (photo credit: Six Island Productions)

Matriarch Brenda Cohen (photo credit: Six Island Productions)

I had the good fortune to talk with director (and co-star) Shawney Cohen a few days prior to the film’s world premiere. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

Before anything, how is your family now? Any changes?

Not really. I mean, we went through this incredible journey and I’m proud of my family for doing it. People ask how my mother is and how she’s coping, but people forget is that she’s kinda been like this for thirty years, so for me it’s normal.

It’s April 2013 now. When did you start shooting?

From the end of 2008/beginning of 2009, and I shot for three years. I got about 200 hours of footage before I started editing. It’s really a film about access. No one else could get these moments. It’s lovely that my parents let me into their lives. For them to open up as much is quite special.

I didn’t just show up and decide to make a film. I just had my DSLR and started filming my father. He was having a conversation with a friend of his in Israel and I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he just popped into the lens and I got addicted to filming him. I shot a ton of footage before I knew what this would be.

I started filming my mother and my brother and slowly an idea came about. When they finally saw the footage it was probably the longest 80 minutes of my life, I wasn’t sure how they would respond. But I think they really liked it. They said as much, that they didn’t want it to end. I think it’s because it is truthful.

There are a lot of docs out there that are more about the craft, and I wanted this to just be a very truthful movie, about the characters and the scene and just tell a story and that’s it.

There is a surprising amount of openness. Is this because you are their son, or because you shot so much footage? Or both?

The best documentaries are long verité documentaries that take years to shoot. One of my favorite docs is “Undefeated,” it won the Academy Award, it was about a football team in Louisiana — the director spent years shooting. You only get moments like that when you spend that much time — the kid getting the scholarship or the father yelling at the son. You have to wait for those moments. And living with my family and being there you begin to understand when the explosions are about to happen and when you should start to shoot, so, yeah, it was just a matter of time.

I feel like you really captured moments where you family just didn’t know or didn’t care that there were cameras there.

Yeah, I think about after 60 or 70 hours of footage people just kinda forget. In my mother’s case it was a little different. With her it became a little therapeutic because she has this disorder and never really talks about it. It’s something we’ve approached her about before, but she was reluctant to even acknowledge that she had an issue. But once we turned the camera she opened up in this wonderful way. The camera became a tool for her to speak out. That was something that I didn’t expect.

When you started did you know that this was going to touch upon the topic of eating disorders? Did you know that would be the crux of the film or did that just unravel naturally?

I felt like her weight issues, and my father’s weight issues, were such an interesting juxtaposition based on a business that’s all about image

It was a discovery. I knew she had an eating disorder, but, for me, I think she became the soul of the film, and I related to her issues more as we were shooting. I felt like her weight issues, and my father’s weight issues, were such an interesting juxtaposition based on a business that’s all about image. That’s what I became addicted to shooting.

I grew up there, and had been working at the club, so it began to feel normal, but when you start showing it to people and analyzing the footage you realize that it is quite unusual and not a normal family. It really became two processes for me — the shooting was more an addiction and fun, but in the edit it became a real film.

Not to psychoanalyze your mother too much, and forgive me if I’m out of line — you mention that she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and in the film she becomes so thin that one immediately flashes on the images of people in concentration camps. Do you think this, in some way, a root of her problem?

Absolutely. I was raised partially by my grandparents. My grandmother was a famous Auschwitz survivor, she was in Auschwitz for five years. My grandfather fought the Nazis in the forest. For me, their neurotic behavior definitely exists in my mom — it would be naive to think that didn’t have an effect.

You say a “famous” survivor, what do you mean? She wrote about it?

She spoke about it a great deal in Toronto. My grandfather never wanted to talk about it. My grandmother talked about it constantly. She had a famous story where she was in the ghetto in Warsaw and she watched her sister get executed right in front of her. They were walking together and her sister had a really cute dog. And as they were walking an SS soldier said “I want that dog for my daughter” and he pulled out a luger shot her in the head and took the dog and left my grandmother there. Stories like that resonate. I don’t think you can forget these things and they become part of the fabric of who you are and… I don’t know that this is the cause of my mother’s anorexia, but… you know.

Roger Cohen at synagogue. (photo credit: courtesy Six Island Productions)

Roger Cohen at synagogue. (photo credit: courtesy Six Island Productions)

How much did you prep your parents before you showed them the film? There are moments where, let’s face it, you don’t exactly paint them in the best light. If you have hundreds of hours of footage they may have had a totally different conception of what the movie is going to be.

It was tough. I don’t show footage to the people in the film prior to it being done, because they start acting differently. I talk to them on a daily basis. I say “this is what you said, this what we talked about.” So they’re aware. But there was a LOT of trepidation going into the screening. In my father’s case, I think he thought he was right. He felt that it proved a lot of his vindications correct, so he sees no problem with it. With my mother it was tougher, but I think she sees the value in it. I actually thought they’d have a different reaction — I thought they wouldn’t like it, so I’m relieved.

There are many conversations in your film where it is just stated, “oh, we know we’re unhappy.” In many families it goes undiscussed. In your family it is discussed… so you’re halfway there… but it appears knowing the problem isn’t enough in this case. Do you see change on the horizon?

The idea that my father may sell the bar is interesting and new

It’s very much a fact of life. The movie did bring us closer together, which is nice. And the idea that my father may sell the bar is interesting and new. I think he realizes what the business has done and made us unhappy, but it has also held us together — and I think that that’s the irony. You can be trapped in a life when you are unhappy but what do you do? It’s hard to change. It’s hard to sell the bar, right? So much of the film is about human nature and addiction. You can admit you have problems but what can you really do to change that? I mean, it’s not that we’re unhappy now, but we accept our circumstance and we live on.

When you were growing up were you outcasts?

Quite the opposite in high school. I was the most popular kid. For me it was more complicated. My brother accepted the life earlier and started working there as a teen. He didn’t see a moral or ethical problem, he saw it as a place to have fun and make money. I had a problem with it when I entered university and dating girls more seriously. In high school it is fun, as you get older it is less impressive and more embarrassing. For me I didn’t shun it, I just didn’t spend too much time there. I worked other jobs in the city related to film. I just reached a point where my parents are getting frail and I just don’t want to judge them anymore.

Was it rough going through puberty having access to a strip club?

[laughs] I think it somehow contributed to my creative spark, but, you know, getting a lap dance for your bar mitzvah is a little unusual, but it becomes normal. As you go through life and your parents take you there you don’t realize that there’s the rest of the world where this would be considered strange. Some parents have furniture stores or pharmacies. Only later you think, wow, this isn’t what most kids grow up around.

You’ve worked in special effects for a number of high profile films, but this is your first feature. You have something lined up next?

I did a short a few years ago about people who surgically implanted themselves with microchips so they could be tracked around. It was also very much about body and addiction — so I think my next film will also touch on these themes. But I still do two nights a week at the bar. It’s a job, I don’t mind it.

Shawney Cohen breaks up a stripper fight. (photo credit: Six Island Productions)

Shawney Cohen breaks up a stripper fight. (photo credit: Six Island Productions)

The times I’m at a bar, it’s like a Bukowski novel. My first week there I had to break up a fight. A guy got thrown through a glass window in the Flamingo Room.

I was going to quit, but I’ll say that every day I stay there something different happens. And they get burned into your mind. So… in a weird way it’s poetic and romantic. Some of the vulnerability you see on display is quite beautiful.

“The Manor” makes its debut this week at Hot Docs in Toronto and will no doubt play the film festival circuit in coming months.