For his 13th birthday, Shawney Cohen received a lap dance. Gifted to him by his father. It didn’t seem that abnormal for a kid who grew up around strippers. His family owns and operates a gentleman’s club outside of Toronto, and as a kid Cohen often stayed at its adjoining hotel. If he awoke in the middle of the night and needed a glass of water, he would head to the bar like it was no big deal.
Decades later, he has now made an irresistible film about the family business, where he also works part time. Named after the club, The Manor presents the place like any of us might share our own childhood backdrop. In a way it’s merely a common setting in the context of Cohen’s life, yet it’s also quite significant to the story of his parents, both of whom have an eating disorder. Over the course of multiple years of coverage, as his obese father has bariatric surgery and his mother is pushed to get help for anorexia, this dynamic is where the documentary maintains its focus.
In a similar manner, American Commune is a personal film co-directed by sisters Nadine Mundo and Rena Mundo Croshere about the famous commune where they grew up, The Farm. And while they provide an insider’s perspective on what it was like to live there, the majority of their documentary is centered on a broader history of this place, its rise and fall as a post-‘60s utopia for hardcore hippies guided by spiritual teacher Stephen Gaskin. Nadine and Rena’s parents were founding members, so of course a lot is chronicled through their experience, details of which wind up mirroring the fate of The Farm as well.
Both docs feature first-person narration, but neither is exemplary of the self-indulgent sort filling most of the personal film genre these days. Cohen and the Mundo sisters are more like supporting characters, opening the door for us and showing us around, only offering exposition wherever necessary (that’s a bit more for American Commune, of course, because so much of it is a chronicle of the past). Unlike many documentary storytellers, they also enter the stage and are part of what unfolds. This puts them out in the open and in doing so buffers their importance in relation to everyone else.
Still, these are also clearly forms of therapy for the filmmakers. And they won’t deny it. Making The Manor allowed Cohen to confront his past and present issues with the business and his family’s dramas, and it ultimately brought them closer. In American Commune, the Mundo sisters visit The Farm for the first time since leaving with their mother in the mid ’80s (a huge culture shock, to be sure). They interview their parents as well as fellow grown-up children of the commune, plus Gaskin and his more famous significant other, midwife Ina May Gaskin. Some of the time they’re looking for an account of the Farm’s beginnings, other times they seek something more specific to their own early years.
Fortunately, the films are not about their own function as tools for healing. It’s surprising how many films like these are, and the simple way Cohen and the Mundo sisters avoid doing that is by not stating such. Even at their most present and detailed, the filmmakers’ voiceovers always let what we’re seeing, whether in a individual scene or the bigger picture, speak for itself. Cohen never has to address, let alone stress, how his mother’s unhealthy need to be thin relates to his father’s work with strippers and how he treats them. We barely even need the short moment where his father is talking about getting rid of a girl for being “too fat,” but even there the point is emphasized without being at all direct.
Even if The Manor and American Commune were primarily made for the directors’ own benefit, they’d still be tremendously captivating for audiences. In the case of The Manor, the outspoken and unapologetic Roger Cohen is hereby added to the list of most magnetic nonfiction film characters of all time (and if anyone wants to make him a fictionalized character, too, he’ll have to be played by Albert Finney, Alan Ford or Brian Cox). His potential to lead this doc to great notoriety through his appearance on screen and off (he’s been a hit at screenings and made the cover of a local weekly paper in Canada for the film’s Hot Docs premiere) may only be hindered by the fact some critics are labeling him an unlikable human being. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Brenda Cohen, is a hugely sympathetic and fragile subject who tips the scale for us in the other direction.
American Commune does not have as strong an ensemble, but while The Manor is a story of the present and needs all that character, the Mundo sisters’ film is concerned more with what happened back when. We become absorbed in its world thanks to a surplus of home movies shot from the start of the community as a cross-country convoy of buses through to Nadine and Rena’s adolescence, as they attempt to assimilate into the MTV generation in addition to society in general. Their film also concludes with a turn of events that comes out of nowhere (seemingly unrelated too) and sort of affirms how commanding the story has been up until then, as it leaves the invested viewer with a sudden inflection of emotions.
Much of what we find compelling in docs like The Manor and American Commune is in their strangeness. The curiosity and fascination with lives different than ours, particularly in terms of upbringing, will always drive us to stories like these. But our interest in seeing people grow up in a strip club or on a hippy commune or wherever also wouldn’t be as strong if we couldn’t use the opportunity to reflect on our own lives, how and where we grew up and the ways the environment shaped us as people. In a way, Cohen’s thinking that his childhood was no big deal is correct, in as much as none of our backstories are big deals. And yet, with great storytellers involved, i.e. Cohen and the Mundo sisters, they may support terrific films that are themselves definitely big deals.