The opening night film for this year's Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival is an intimate look at family life... in a strip club.
"The Manor" is the story of the Cohen family, chronicling their lives with each other while also operating one of Ontario's longest-running gentlemen's clubs. As titillating as this doc may initially seem, don't expect a raucous romp of sex and booze. Instead, "The Manor" takes a hard look at marriage, money, dependence, severe obesity, addiction and eating disorders; the actual stripping takes a back seat to a frank depiction of a family's struggle.
Hot Docs is no stranger to international interest; in fact, the opening night films in recent years have featured some major international talent. This year the festival has boldly decided to get behind first-time Canadian filmmaker Shawney Cohen and "The Manor," his very strong autobiographical debut. Now in his mid-30s, Shawney is a manager at The Manor, the strip club business that has been in his family since he was 6.
However, Shawney splits the focus of his film across the other members of his family. Amongst the bare bottoms and bosoms, the most striking character in "The Manor" is Shawney's father, Roger. A child of holocaust survivors, Roger is archetypical television dad of the 20th century: overbearing, loving, a little racist and, at 400 pounds, he struggles with obesity. In the end, he's a caring family man. Roger is no doubt a patriarch, paying salaries to his two boys to help run the strip club, which is attached to a 32-room motel. He smokes, eats at a constant rate and barks out orders and advice, regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it.
Brenda is Roger's wife, and very much the Peggy Bundy to his Al. She has been a housewife for most of her adult life, supporting her family, but clearly unhappy with her proximity to the family business. Brenda copes by being the antithesis to her husband; she doesn't eat, and weighs a scant 85 pounds because of it.
Rounding out the family is brother Sammy, who has embraced the strip club culture, spending the cash he makes on nice cars and dating one of the dancers who works for The Manor; a business policy no-no. Other important characters in the film are former stripper Susan, who now runs the attached hotel, and assistant Bobby, an ex-con who has problems with drugs and women and has trouble colouring within the lines when it comes to legal business practices.
This is an interesting group with lots of character and plenty of troubles. To put it simply: at their core, the Cohens are a family like any other. This intimate look at the Cohens is what really shines in "The Manor," and what I imagine drew the attention of the Hot Docs curators. Sure, there are the blush-worthy scenes of strippers dropping off dollar-filled envelopes in the middle of important family meetings and crises, and one scene demonstrates how a dancer is prepped to deal with grabby customers. It takes a big personality to handle that kind of work, and Roger is more than up to the task.
Going into "The Manor," I was sure that the salacious subject matter was going to do all the heavy lifting in this doc. Fortunately, Shawney Cohen had some heady material to work with, so all he had to do was keep the camera rolling. I was delighted with his great sense of professionalism when it came to shooting, editing and scoring his film. Cohen clearly knows where his priorities are as a filmmaker.
When it comes to showing the naked truth about life and family, "The Manor" is anything but shy. It deserves its opening night spot at Hot Docs 2013.
"The Manor" screenings: Thu, Apr 25 9:30 PM Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Mon, Apr 29 12:00 PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Full schedule of Hot Docs screenings