Keeping it in the family

Hot Docs hit “The Manor” explores the social unit through a family-owned strip club

Many filmmakers look to their surroundings for inspiration. In the case of Shawney Cohen, whose debut documentary The Manor hits Cinematheque this week, all it took was going back to work for his parents.

Cohen comes from a small Jewish family who owns The Manor - a strip club in Guelph, Ontario. The journalist/filmmaker works there twice a week, and during his shifts he began documenting the relationship between his parents.

After a year, Cohen became obsessed with filming his father who he says “jumped into the lens.” Despite his parents’ unhealthy relationship, his mother never discussed their marital issues until Shawney hit “record”.

“The second the camera was on she opened up in quite a profound way,” Cohen says over the phone from his Toronto apartment. “So I have many therapy sessions, I call them - these sessions where I filmed her for hours and I think it was very beneficial for her.”

That was when Cohen realized he had a story to tell. He says he wasn’t sure what the film would turn into but he knew it was something he had to do.

It’s a very interesting thing to be the son and the filmmaker, you get this very intimate access

Shawney Cohen, filmmaker and manager of a family-owned Guelph stripclub

“The heart of the film is really about my parents’ relationship,” he says. “All other arcs – including the strip club itself – are just a dimension of the relationship. When people see that honesty, they’re just kind of drawn in.”

Married for 42 years, Cohen’s overweight father and underweight mother fight for their physical health while working in an establishment focused on image. 

What really sets The Manor apart from other documentaries is Cohen’s incredibly close relationships with the subjects of the film 

“It’s a very interesting thing to be the son and the filmmaker, you get this very intimate access,” Cohen says. 

The filmmaker says he was worried about showing The Manor to his parents but believes that they really appreciated its honesty.

“Truthfully, they [his parents] didn’t know much about my history and I don’t know if they cared that much,” Cohen says. “I don’t think they felt the film – or what I was shooting – would go anywhere. When I think about it, that was my strongest asset, because they just assumed it would stay on my computer.”

Cohen says he’s most proud of the connection he made with his mother over the course of production and finds the film to have been very beneficial to his family.

“I’ve come to accept that my parents understand each other in a way I never will,” he says.

Published in Volume 68, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 11, 2013)

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