Published by the Alternate Dream
There is an idea out there that documentaries are at their best when they are made by people who tell ‘their own story’ or subjects very intimate to them. It is probably such thesis that led to the selection of Shawney Cohen’s first feature-length documentary, The Manor, as the film that opens Hot Docs’s 20th year. The thesis is shaky and the film was quite a disappointment.
With footage filmed during about 4 years, The Manor narrates the somewhat quirky and bizarre life of Cohen’s family and their family business – a strip club. His dad suffers from obesity, his mom from an eating disorder that leaves her very thin and vulnerable to the slightest blow. As one would expect, there are many genuinely funny scenes in the movie but Shawney doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The dark undertone remains present in the film. The lives of family characters are mostly shattered or disfigured and there is no hiding this.
Watching The Manor, it is no surprise why Cohen, who worked as an animator previous to the film, decided to make it. His dad, Roger, who was also present at the screening, together with all other major family characters, is a character and cries to be filmed. Few characters played by actors in fictional stories are this well worked-out and rememberable. Clearly, this is one family that is not shy about washing its dirty underwear in public as their very public presence at the screening suggests. Thus, we have a fun autobiographical story of a very funny family.
This makes The Manor good and watchable but not good enough to have the honor of opening the festival. One has to be careful about the cult of ‘unfiltered, real lives’ in the documentary world. There is no virtue in self-expression just as an autobiographical nature of a story doesn’t automatically make it better than a fictional one. The Manor, like so many other films these days, lacks that greatness that would make it memorable and durable; That auteur take that could have made its very personal stories, universal. For great docs, you need great filmmakers; how
‘intimate’ they are to the story they narrate is only secondary.