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

“Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children,” which had its world premiere in Hot Doc’s Hidden Histories sidebar, is among several festival titles that shine a light on historic institutional abuse or injustice towards people across the intimate stories of survivors.

The Huronia Regional Centre, a now closed hospital and home for developmentally disabled children, opened in Orillia (about 90 miles from Toronto) in 1876 under a different name. In the mid-twentieth century, reports of harm to children and recommendations from medical experts to close the institution were ignored.

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 documentary filmmaker Barri Cohen’s ears perked up.

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

Cohen began an investigation into his own family history, while reaching out to survivors and others familiar with the center, to understand not only what happened to his half-siblings, but also for audiences to reflect on what she calls 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 documentary as a way to deepen the conversation about how society’s most vulnerable are treated by its institutions.

Tell me about the process of deciding to tell this story about your family members – your previous films touch on some tough subjects, but I imagine that’s a whole other category.
I always knew that entering the history of Huronia – a sort of institution that dominated North America and Europe in the 20th century – was going to be personal. These days, tough 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 key to the larger narrative, although there is a mystery tucked away in my own family history in the film.

How have you kept your emotional safety?
Just making the film provided me with an intellectual distance that helped me face and overcome the difficult emotions that were stirred up by finding out details about my brothers and hearing such difficult survivor stories. I also studied trauma and psychotherapy at the time, as a practice, so that helped me tremendously.

Were there any particular difficulties or rewards in telling a difficult story involving family members?
Working with the family, if all are in agreement, there is a sense of closure for their own issues and a sense of healing in learning the truth. I think my family had the courage to trust me to succeed.

Family secrets can provide such a strong and emotional narrative in feature-length fiction and docs, but difficult in docs because people may try to hide secrets or fail to keep records. Was there a particular turning point or breakthrough?

The older generation of my family didn’t keep records, they didn’t keep photos. But they keep secrets. So it was either a fluke or just good timing when one day in 2017, and after asking him many times to no avail, my 87-year-old uncle, my father’s brother, revealed something key to the story that paved the way for a better understanding of what happened and why.

After denying it for years, he revealed that one of my brothers had actually been sent to Huronia when he was two years old; this, after having practically disappeared from the official registers of deaths and cemeteries. We could then reconstitute from his patient file a written trace of the place where he was probably buried. But I needed the Jewish Archives of Ontario to dig into a 60-year-old file to find that a charity had in fact paid for his burial.

What does it mean to you that “Unloved” is premiering at Hot Docs?
It’s very rewarding not only because it’s the best doc festival in the world, but it’s also the one I helped found 29 years ago. I was part of a board of volunteer filmmakers that initially put the festival together, so I’m extremely grateful to see how it has grown and expanded its support for filmmakers across Canada and around the world.

Cohen confirmed that “Unloved,” which was commissioned for the CBC-owned documentary channel, is in talks and close to securing further distribution deals.

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