Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Warrendale (dir. Allan King, 1967)

What's Hell really like? I've read Dante, but it's not a subject I care to dwell on. There's a moment in the black and white documentary Warrendale that must at least approximate what it sounds like. It's when Carol, one of the residents of Warrendale (a home for emotionally troubled children somewhere in Canada), wails in grief and rage after the news is broken of the sudden death of Dorothy, the institution's cook, who we've seen in an earlier scene clowning around with the kids. Never has the sound of despair been so disturbingly captured on film. The closest thing to it I've seen and heard is Emilie Ekdahl's wails of grief over her dead husband in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.

Of course, that's fantastical fiction, this is an unfiltered real-life moment captured by a master documentarian who now has a chance to become better known thanks to the recent release by Criterion of The Actuality Dramas of Allan King. If you've never heard of this Canadian filmmaker you're far from alone. I hadn't until two weeks ago when this tribute piqued my interest. King's method was a variation of the "fly on the wall" approach, eschewing narration and on-screen interviews, though fully cognizant of the mediating influence of the camera and its propensity to influence the behavior of its human subjects. Indeed, there are scenes in Warrendale where the camera is pointed out by its subjects and the filmmaker's name invoked.

The details of the cruel traumas that landed these children in this strange institution remain a mystery, as is the exact clinical nature of their dysfunctions. If there's a common thread it's that these are kids that haven't (can't?) grown up. Think teenagers with the emotional maturity of toddlers. The antics of the terrible two's in a teenager are not merely annoying they're downright dangerous. The "attachment therapy" practiced by the professionals of the home consists in liberal use of "holding" -- in which the child's arms and legs are pinned in order to create a safe space for them to vent rage, grief, whatever. The goal seems to be to prime the pump of pent-up emotions, to get it all out. At other times infantile behavior is encouraged. At bedtime the staff conduct rituals more appropriate for babies. In one peculiar scene Terry -- a caregiver of quiet strength and beauty -- gives a bottle to 15-year old Carol while telling the story of Rapunzel in a reassuring whisper.

One can't help but speculate as to the ethics and practical value of this sort of treatment. Yet one comes away admiring the dogged dedication of staff members Terry Adler, Maurice Flood and Walter Gunn. Walter is the most compelling character of Warrendale. It's evident early on that he has a special rapport with the children. He's the one brought in when the others can't make any headway, like when Carol refuses to get out of bed, or when a group of boys go missing. When Walter's around the kids light up. Looking like a more rakish version of Bobby Kennedy he's part pied piper, part surrogate big brother -- especially to potty-mouth angel-faced Tony. In keeping with the non-narrative structure of the film we learn nothing of the personal lives or motivations of Walter and the rest.

Warrendale contains moments of happiness. Like when Walter gathers the boys around the telly for "Hockey Night in Canada" accompanied by cigar-smoking and wagering. I told you this was an unorthodox place. If there weren't moments of joy then watching it would be an impossibly grim exercise. It turns out that Warrendale isn't quite hell and Carol's scream isn't the cry of the damned. Because there's still hope. I wonder. Did the children of Warrendale grow up to be well-adjusted adults with kids of their own? They would be retirement age now. Possibly spending winters in Florida like thousands of other Canadian snowbirds. Hard to believe, but possible.

Allan King concludes his deeply human piece of cinema verite at the graveside of Dorothy. We watch as a young priest with a hacking cold (remember this is real life) performs the last rites. His perfunctory words are scant consolation to the troop of grieving juveniles standing by, but within them are the seeds of hope for a broken world full of Warrendales.


gataian said...

As a resident of House One at Warrendale,at the time that this film was made, I too have wondered how some of the other children have fared.
You question why these children were there. At the time that this film was made, the powers that were had decided that all childhood mental and emotional problems stemmed from their home environment.
In my case,at 14, I was bored at school, started skipping it and got caught shoplifting. Instead of sending me to reform school, the court sent me to Warrendale. I'm sure that they thought that they had my best interested at heart. But, personally, when I was put in the same environment as children with autism, schizophrenia and those that had grown up in foster care, and was told that we're all alike, well, yes, there was some anger and acting out. Even at 14 I knew that there was a big difference.
As far as I could see, holding and bottle feeding were not right. I guess that some of the children needed the attention but was this the way?
And the poor parents, being brought in for regular meetings and told that the reason that their children were autistic or schizophrenic was because they hadn't raised them properly. "These children didn't need drugs, no, they just needed someone to hold them and love them."
This was the alternative to electric shock treatments at that time so I guess that I was lucky to miss that.
At the time, I didn't know why the practices at Warrendale weren't good, just that they weren't. In my own simple way I quietly put as many sticks in the spokes as I could.
At the age of 16, I was discharged from 'John Brown's' care. Not because I had been 'cured', but that I was "untreatable and was disrupting the other children's treatment".
Imagine, thrown out as "untreatable". I repeat that with a sense of pride. This might sound silly to those that didn't go through it, but, it was a hell of an accomplishment to have survived relatively unscathed.
I have worried about the one's that I left behind. I hope that they're alright. I haven't forgotten them, they were one of the most important parts of my life.
I'm a grandmother now, worked at McMaster University for 30 years and yes I do vacation in Forida every year.
Thank you for giving me a forum on which to voice this. It's the first time that I've been able to write about it.
Sharon Turple Gataiance

Stephen Ley said...

Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your memories. Your comments shed light on some of the questions the film raises. Best wishes!

Ann Diamond blog said...

I have some information relating to the film Warrendale that I'd like to share.

First, Dr. Martin Fischer who appears early on in the documentary, posed as a psychoanalyst during his years in Toronto, but in fact was not one. He came to Canada in 1940 with the help of British intelligence, studied medicine in Toronto, and for a time worked at Lakeshore Psychiatric hospital, and later for Childrens' Aid. Dr. Fischer later founded the Canadian Art Therapy Institute, which has been the subject of many ethics complaints over the years, which continued after his death in 1993.

There are many unanswered questions about this documentary. Where did these traumatized children come from? What conditions (schizophrenia? autism?) were they being treated for?

Bottlefeeding is mentioned by MKULTRA survivor Carol Rutz, who says this technique was used on her to reinforce dependency on her CIA handler, Sid Gottlieb.

"Holding" appears to be a form of restraint designed to protect the children and staff from extremely violent behaviour. Why were these children considered to need this immobilizing technique? Were they seen to be capable of unusual degrees of violence, and if so, why? What was special about these kids?

Why is the mystery of Dorothy's death never explained? It seems the whole dynamic of the film revolves around it.

Why does Walter Gunn insist so much, at the end, that the children are not to blame for and did not cause Dorothy's death? Is this in some way related to the need to restrain these kids in special ways?

And, given that a somewhat shadowy German doctor with connections to the intelligence community is involved with these children, is it possible that Warrendale was connected in some way to the MKULTRA program which had closed down in 1964. Had these children undergone the kind of mind control programming described by Carol Rutz, including "assassin programming" and even "psychic assassin programming" -- in which children were trained to kill with their minds?

Is the underlying mystery behind Warrendale and its strange methods, that these "schizophrenic" kids were products of an earlier program that had left them incapable of reintegrating into society, and made it necessary to monitor them closely, using some of the the same techniques used by MKULTRA programmers?

The National Film Board was heavily influenced in those days by its beginnings in war propaganda, and was an arm of military intelligence. A number of NFB films during the 1960s documented the effects of drugs on young people.

The workers in the film may also have been unwitting participants in an ongoing experiment. WARRENDALE influenced a generation of child care workers.

If these thoughts ring any bells for people who were involved or connected in any way, I would appreciate any comments.