by Stanley Kauffman
Warrendale is so moving, so fascinating and fine, that I hesitate to say what it's about. The moment I mention the subject, the reader will perhaps think that the film is noble and worthwhile but that he is willing to take its worth for granted and spare himself. This would be self-cheating: not of information or duty but of humanity and, in a paradoxical way, of joy. Warrendale is a documentary about emotionally disturbed children. It is not a study, it is not propaganda. It is an experience, passionate and compassionate.
The title is the (former) name of a center in Ontario for disturbed children, not brain damaged or mentally defective children. In 1966 a Canadian film-maker named Allan King was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to make a film about the place. He spent a month getting acquainted with the children in House Two. Then he brought in his cameraman William Brayne and his sound man Russel Heise for about two weeks of similar visits. Then they shot film for five weeks in and around the house. Out of forty thousand feet of footage, this hundred-minute film was edited by Peter Moseley. Hurrah - just plain simple hurrah - for all of them.
Most feature films are made by men who first create or help create or somehow acquire fictional scripts and then guide actors and other artists to the fulfillment of the fiction. With a film like Warrendale, nothing can be created except - a huge exception - the confidence of the subjects. The film-makers have to know, really, who their subjects are, and the subjects have to believe it. In short, the prime requirement is not film talent as such, though these men have enough, but empathy, communion, credibility. The most brilliant filmmaker alive would have been powerless to make Warrendale without the confidence of those children (and the adult staff). That confidence, in King and his colleagues, shines from the screen - principally by virtue of the film's very existence.
It starts with the counselor of the house, a young woman named Terry, waking the children one morning and having a tussle with a teen-age girl who refuses to get up, who pulls the blankets over her head and fights Terry. My reaction the first time I saw this film (I've seen it twice) was that the girl was perfectly right: who would want to get up when there was a camera grinding away in the bedroom? And I began to warm up all my prejudices against the intrusiveness of much cinema verite. But it didn't take long to see that my feeling was quite misplaced, that the girl's reaction was (one might say) natural - she didn't want to get up just as naturally as if she and Terry had been alone. This is proved by the spontaneity of all the other actions in the picture, including many by that girl. The camera quite obviously became just another occupant of the house. At one point, one of the boys blithely playing Red Light with some other children in the street outside, confides to the camera that he can see his friends' steps with his back turned because of the reflections in the lens.
The basic Warrendale technique is "holding": when a child has an emotional seizure, an outsize tantrum, one of the attendants - sometimes two or three - pins his arms and legs and lets him rip. Complete freedom of feeling is the essence, with restraint to keep the child from hurting himself and to provide a sense of physical contact, the caring of somebody else. We see this method used frequently with these volatile children. But crucially, a foreword tells us that this is not a documentary about a technique, it is a personal and selective record of an experience. I have no idea whether the "holding" technique is good or bad therapy. I do know that King's film about the place where it was used brought me close, in a naked and tribal way, to five or six emotionally disturbed children. It revealed not only the personalities but the worth of these children. There's a boy named Tony, about ten, splay-toothed and curly-haired, whose every second expression is "Fuck off," repeated in a pathetic defensive litany. When he's struggling in the counselors' arms during one of his tantrums, swearing furiously, I could only think, because of what I knew about him, even because of what he was doing at the moment and why he was doing it, "That's a wonderful kid. That's a terrific human being." King had led that boy on to film before then, had shown him playing and blushing and teasing and talking: now, because Tony was present, his tantrum seemed one of his ways to express an exceptional sensitivity.
The film merely presents some events in the life of the house. The central point is the sudden death of the relatively young Negro cook, a woman evidently dear to everyone. The chief counsellor decides to announce it to all the children at once and the resulting scene is heartbreaking - but not in a bedlam horror sense. Before the meeting one of the counsellors asks the chief how they can explain the death to the kids when they don't understand it themselves. What we see with the children is this bafflement and fright in extremis. All the children feel various kinds of guilt for the cook's death. This - enormously amplified in them - is something that all of us feel at sudden death, particularly of the young; not directly responsible, as the children feel, but haunted by the sense that we ought to have been able to do something.
This experience is a model of the whole film. These children act out, in exaggerated and baroque ways, many feelings that other children - other people - feel and suppress or understand objectively and can control. These children have little objectivity or control and they just let go: guilt about having been unloved in their homes, as if they had earned neglect, as if they were undeserving of this place and its care; fear to love because of the fear of loss of the beloved; unbridled anger at the teeming mysteries of just one ordinary modern day's existence. Society has not (or not yet) given them the means to control their fears and to invent answers, as it has given to many adults and to the clergyman who presides over the cook's funeral.
Any film that is an impromtu record is likely to have roughnesses and omissions. For instance, it's clear that King was caught slightly short because the cook died early in the filming and he had only a little footage of her. (Understandably, he shifts her death to a point near the end of the film; strict chronology was not important, and the film would have run downhill if he had followed it.) Some of the sound could be clearer, some of the sequences fuller. A few of the children are left virtually unnoticed, like a pretty teen-age girl, flirtatiously dressed, who sits in the back-ground chewing gum and reading magazines while other children are threshing about in counselor's arms.
But much more bothersome are two extrinsic facts. The first is that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, having commissioned this film, refused to show it because it contains - often - the words "fuck" and "bullshit." I hope that at least some members of the CBC felt that this decision was a fucking disgrace. Would it have been impossible to show this utterly humane, basically ennobling film late at night - even if it meant cancelling for one evening some acid-in-the-face private-eye thriller with scrubbed language?
Second is the fact that Warrendale has now changed hands and methods, largely (I'm told) because of controversy over this film. I'm as incompetent to comment on the political questions as the therapeutic. I do know that, watching this film and knowing that at least some of the children have been moved and are being treated differently, I felt that something warm and organic and nourishing had been hurt.
Last year we saw a documentary called Titicut Follies, made in a Massachusetts institution for the criminally insane, a picture that no doubt originated in a genuine impulse to expose oppressive conditions but that, I thought, began to get some gawking kicks out of showing them. I mention that picture only to assure those who saw it - or who wouldn't see it - that Warrendale has not the slightest resemblance to it. It is not an expose, it is not a chamber of horrors. It is a union with some children who become very precious to us before the 100 minutes are up. Partly this is because they are themselves interesting and they are allowed - induced - to be there; partly it's because they seem to be us, under a distorting magnifying glass. Jean Renoir has called Allan King "a great artist" - not a bad compliment from a man who is a pretty fair artist himself. Inarguably, King has evoked those children's inner selves so powerfully on the screen that he has snared us up there, too.