By Terra Borody
Shawney Cohen’s highly anticipated film The Manor kicked off the Hot Docs Festival at Bloor Cinema last Thursday night. The film paints a humble picture of Shawney’s personal life in Guelph, Ontario, where he helps with his family’s business: The Manor strip club and motel. The film begins something like a home video, with innocent experimentation filming his father and the day-to-day life at The Manor. Shawney tells the audience he became “addicted” to filming and quickly found himself painting a raw portrait of his family’s dysfunctional relationships and how they’re rooted in the family business.
For the excited audience, comprising of what seemed like more University of Guelph students than an alumni reunion, the bleak suburban landscape hit close to home, and the neon-lit club conjured memories of legends told by those who braved the Tuesday Amateur nights. For the most part, the film stays close to its four main characters: Shawney, his brother Sammy and his parents Roger and Brenda. Those wanting a peepshow into the scandalous life of a stripper, however, will be disappointed, yet this is what makes Cohen’s story so strong, because he keeps scandal secondary (despite having more than enough to work with!).
Still, the intimacy the viewer shares with the characters is sometimes unnerving and the film’s blunt honesty can border on exposé. Shawney’s mother, easily the most affective character, is also the quietest and admittedly needs to be coaxed into opening up in front of the camera. An unusual technical slip-up near the end of the film made an already tense moment all the more real. During what may have been Shawney’s mother’s most vulnerable moment onscreen, an accidental hit of a switch caused the back curtain of the theatre to slowly open. I turned my head to the glass room behind me, and to my surprise, Brenda Cohen was gazing back at me in the flesh. Her eyes then shifted to view the screen, a moment of self-recognition that only documentary film can create.