Barri Cohen on Revealing Family Secrets in Hot Docs Film ‘Unloved’

·4-min read

“Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children,” which world premiered in Hot Doc’s Hidden Histories sidebar, is among several titles at the festival that illuminate historical institutional abuse of or injustice toward people through the intimate stories of survivors.

Huronia Regional Center, a now-closed hospital and home for children with developmental disabilities, opened in Orillia (roughly 90 miles from Toronto) in 1876 under a different name. In the mid 20th century, reports of harm to children and recommendations by medical experts to close the institution were not heeded.

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In December 2013, a class-action lawsuit brought by former residents of the center against the province of Ontario was settled.

That’s when veteran documentarian Barri Cohen’s ears perked up.

Her father had two sons from his first marriage who had been sent to Huronia in the 1950s. Cohen’s older half-sibling, Adele, asked if she knew about the family connection. The picture was seriously incomplete.

Cohen began an investigation of her own family’s story, while reaching out to survivors and others familiar with the center, to understand not only what happened to her half-siblings, but also so audiences could reflect on what she refers to as the “dehumanization and warehousing of people,” which continues to this day.

During Hot Docs, Cohen spoke with Variety about the delicate art of exploring family secrets in a doc as a way to further the conversation about how society’s most vulnerable are treated by its institutions.

Please tell me about the process of deciding to tell this story about your family members—your previous films tackle tough subjects, but I imagine this is a whole different category.
I always knew that the way into the story about Huronia—a kind of institution that was dominant across North America and Europe in the 20th century—was going to be personal. These days, difficult stories demand transparency from their filmmakers about why they are drawn to such stories. Knowing that I had two brothers (Alfie Cohen and Louis Cohen) who lived and died there was the lynchpin into the larger narrative—though there’s a mystery nestled within my own family story in the film.

How did you keep yourself emotionally safe?
Just making the film provided intellectual distance that helped me cope and power through difficult emotions that were brought up in discovering details about my brothers and in listening to such difficult stories from survivors. I also studied trauma and psychotherapy at that time, as a practice, so that helped enormously.

Were there particular challenges or rewards in telling a difficult story that involves family members?
In working with family, if all are onside, there’s a sense of closure for their own questions and a sense of healing in learning the truth. I think my family was courageous in trusting me to pull it off.

Family secrets can provide such a strong, emotional narrative in both fiction and doc features, but difficult in docs because people may try to hide secrets or don’t keep records. Was there a particular turning point or breakthrough?

The older generation in my family didn’t keep records, they didn’t keep photos. But they do keep secrets. Thus, it was a piece of luck or just good timing when one day, in 2017, and after asking him many times to no avail, that my 87-year-old uncle, my dad’s brother, revealed a key piece of the story that unlocked a path forward to understanding more of what happened and why.

After denying it for years, he revealed that one of my brothers was in fact sent away to Huronia at age two; this, after having all but disappeared from official death and cemetery records. We could then piece together from his patient file a paper trail of where he was likely buried. But I needed the Ontario Jewish Archives to dig into a 60-year-old record to discover that a charity actually paid for his burial.

What does it mean to you for “Unloved” to premiere at Hot Docs?
It is deeply gratifying not only because it’s the top doc festival in the world, but it’s one that I had a hand in founding some 29 years ago. I was on a volunteer board of filmmakers who initially put the festival together so I’m incredibly grateful to see how it has grown and expanded in its support for filmmakers in Canada and around the world.

Cohen confirmed that “Unloved,” which was commissioned for the CBC-owned Documentary Channel, is in talks and close to closing additional distribution deals.

“Unloved” is written and directed by Barri Cohen and produced by White Pine Pictures, in association with the Documentary Channel. The producer is Craig Baines, executive producers are Cohen, Peter Raymont and Steve Ord. The film was produced with the participation of the Canada Media Fund, Rogers Documentary Fund, Ontario Creates, with the assistance of the National Film Board of Canada and the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit.

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