It’s one of the most instantly recognizable Jewish narratives of the 20th century: Two high schoolers – one an impoverished immigrant with an Old World accent that 50 years in the New World will be unable to fade, and the other the child of holocaust survivors — meet in the 1970s and fall in love. They marry, they struggle, and eventually they move forward, determined to give their children something bigger and better than what they knew.
The Mother cooks and takes care of the house, the Father starts a successful business. One of their two sons seems destined to take it over, while the other seems destined to rebel. And sure enough, it is the rebellious, questioning son who confronts the dark histories that both bind his family together and threaten to tear them apart.
Except in this case, the Father’s business is a strip club. And the Son’s bar mitzvah present was a lapdance.
Toronto-based filmmaker Shawney Cohen, now 38, has made a sensitive, thoughtful documentary about his very unusual childhood growing as a child of the Manor, the ‘gentleman’s club’ his father bought when Cohen was just 6 years old. Although the film abounds with colorful characters – an ex-con bar manager, a retired stripper with faded blond hair and an addiction to pills, and the expected coterie of struggling dancers who can’t seem to keep the peace or make it in for their shifts – the two most compelling characters by far are Cohen’s parents, Brenda and Roger.
Their house is haunted by something far more scandalous than some naked flesh or battered overnight guests, the scandal of 20th century anti-Semitism. Roger, an obese Israeli/Egyptian immigrant with thick glasses and the charisma of a late-career Oliver Reed, eats almost nonstop as a protest against the hunger he remembers from childhood. Brenda, large-eyed and frail, cooks lavish meals for the family, but weighs only 85 pounds. Both parents have a life of abundance that they don’t know how to enjoy – and two sons who know something is wrong but are not sure what to do about it.
“The Manor” will open DOCNYC this Friday night. Shawney Cohen spoke with The Forward by phone a few days ago in Toronto, while preparing for his night shift at managing the bar at the strip club. He spoke candidly about his mother’s illness, his father’s weight, and the complexities of his parents’ 40 year marriage.
The Forward: Even now, you work at the club?
It’s funny, that’s the most common question I get – are you still working there? People love the fact that I do. I am working on a new film now, and I still do my Sunday and Monday shift and I think it’s great. I’ve never been closer with my family, and yeah absolutely I think the film has really brought us close together.