The Manor: Karlovy Vary Review

"The Manor," 2013.
Top-drawer reality TV in feature format.

Director Shawney Cohen's candid documentary looks at himself and his next of kin, who run a strip club near Toronto.

KARLOVY VARY -- The son of a Jewish-Canuck strip-club owner documents the life of his own family for several years, reality-TV style, in The Manor, an entertaining and finally touching look at one family's struggle to live the Canadian Dream.

With a loving but hardheaded mother who suffers from an eating disorder, an overbearing and obese father who rules the family and family business with an iron fist and a younger playboy brother who, unlike director Shawney Cohen, actually enjoys managing a nighttime venue full of naked girls, there's more than enough material for drama and clashes. Shot on medium-quality digital video, the film opened Hot Docs, was part of the documentary competition at Karlovy Vary and will travel to other festivals before finding its way to broadcast formats.

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In the opening minutes, the director introduces his family (based in Guelph, just outside Toronto) in a voice-over that suggests through small anecdotes, such as the fact that Shawney received a lap dance for his bar mitzvah, what kind of people the Cohens are. Being the son of a strip-club owner is unusual, though Shawney's younger brother, Sammy, enjoys working in the family biz, as it affords him a certain lifestyle and a pool of potential girlfriends -- such as dancer Gillian, who's invited along to homemaker mother Brenda's elaborate Shabbat dinners.

Father Roger, who weighs 370 pounds, loves to eat and has become "obsessed with his own mortality" since he turned 60. In an almost too perfect reverse image, Roger's frail-looking wife, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is not eating at all and later admits that her eating disorder started when Roger bought the titular club 30 years ago. It's clear that the parents love their kids but have problems keeping their own relationship going.

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All the Cohens seem rather oblivious to the fact that their lives are being documented on camera for three years, with no signs of anyone censoring themselves or exaggerating their behavior for effect. This just happens to be a family of extreme personalities, which reinforces the reality-TV feel, as the camera operators seem to be present for almost every key event that's necessary to create a logical narrative out of the material. Smaller subplots involving some of Roger's colorful employees are also carefully woven in by editor Seth Poulin. The score by Jim Guthrie, however, occasionally becomes a little cheesy.

Though both sons don't live with their parents anymore, they still seem to be spending almost all their time at the family home. Of the four outsized personalities, the one that's the most subdued is Shawney himself, who -- perhaps logically, as a director as well as a son and brother -- feels more like an observer than a participant in the family dynamics. But the film's slight detachment is actually helpful, as it allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about how this dysfunctional clan still manages to function.


Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Documentary competition)

Production companies: Six Island Productions, TVO

Cast: Shawney Cohen, Roger Cohen, Brenda Cohen, Sammy Cohen

Director: Shawney Cohen

Co-director: Mike Gallay

Producer: Paul Scherzer

Executive producers: Paul Scherzer, Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Director of photography: Chris Mably

Music: Jim Guthrie

Editor: Seth Poulin

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 78 minutes