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TORONTO - A cinematic look at an unconventional family business — a strip club — is the opening night film for this year's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
But "The Manor" is not a strip-club story, says first-time director Shawney Cohen, who trains the camera on his dysfunctional parents.
"I think the film is very much about love and addiction," said the 37-year-old Cohen, whose own conflicted feelings about the Guelph, Ont., business are also examined.
"My mother is anorexic, my father is close to 400 pounds and I find that juxtaposition quite amazing. So for me that's always kind of been the underlying theme and that really developed more and more as I was filming my parents."
"The Manor" — one of 205 docs from 43 countries that will screen at the fest — joins a substantial Canadian contingent that also includes Michelle Latimer's hip-hop portrait "Alias," Liz Marshall's animal-focused "The Ghosts in Our Machine," Ric Bienstock's expose "Tales from the Organ Trade" and Charles Wilkinson's look at oil sands workers in "Oil Sands Karaoke."
They join previously announced projects including Barry Avrich's portrait of Canadian comic David Steinberg in "Quality Balls - The David Steinberg Story" and John Kastner's look at violent mental patients in "NCR: Not Criminally Responsible."
Program director Charlotte Cook says Canadian entries — which make up just over 25 per cent of the slate — are particularly notable.
"There's a huge rise in the amount of Canadian films at the festival this year and that's due to the amazing array of films that we saw, we were absolutely blown away," Cook said at a news conference held at the festival's headquarters — a century-old downtown theatre.
Kastner, a self-described "old doc dog" who's been making non-fiction films for more than 30 years, said he's driven by the chance to humanize people who've been demonized in some way or another.
While past projects have examined breast cancer sufferers and pedophiles, his new film "NCR" is a two-part project that weighs the rights of the mentally ill against the safety of others.
"You can actually come to care about somebody by getting to know them on film in a way that is impossible if you just read about them in print. This is a power and it's a great privilege to have," said Kastner, whose film "Life With Murder" earned an International Emmy Award for best doc.
"There's a human being behind this label that you've stuck on these people. I'm going to show you this human being and I'm even going to try to make you incredibly feel for this person. That's what film can do, that's what documentaries can do."
International titles headed to Hot Docs include Lucy Walker's "The Crash Reel," about snowboarder Kevin Pearce; Lofty Nathan's "12 o'clock Boys," about a dirt-bike gang; and Matt Wolf's look at teenage culture in "Teenage."
Star subjects include Romeo Dallaire in "Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children"; Gael Garcia Bernal in "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" and Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Bono in "Muscle Shoals." Meanwhile, James Franco co-directs "Interior. Leather Bar.," which imagines what was contained in 40 minutes of gay S&M footage rumoured to have been cut from the 1980 film "Cruising."
Cohen said his film offers its own dose of star power — he described his father as a compelling "cross between Woody Allen and Tony Soprano."
"He's just an incredible kind of person to watch and I really got addicted to filming him," he said, noting he collected nearly 90 days' worth of footage over three years.
"Like good verite docs it takes a lot of footage to reveal these personal moments and I think it took a lot of patience. And after a while people started opening up."
He said the process has been especially therapeutic for his mother, who bought the strip club with his father nearly 30 years ago.
"It's certainly brought me closer to my family and kind of made me more interested in working there," admitted Cohen, who works as a manager at The Manor.
"I was more uncomfortable in the beginning but the more I got to know my family and started working there I began to appreciate what the business is and it was quite different than what I anticipated in the beginning."
"The Manor" will open in Toronto on May 10 and later expands to other Canadian cities.
A special section of the Hot Docs festival will celebrate works from Poland while a mid-career retrospective program will celebrate filmmaker Peter Mettler. An outstanding achievement award retrospective will honour Les Blank.
The documentary festival, North America's largest, runs April 25 through May 5 at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
This year's marks the 20th anniversary of the Toronto showcase.
On the web: http://www.hotdocs.ca
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect name for the David Steinberg project.