Written and Directed by Jackie Torrens | 78 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | CBC Gem
Bernie Langille has lived in the shadow of his grandfather’s death his whole life. Bernie is named after him, a veteran who died in suspicious circumstances in Halifax in February 1968. That’s the core of this documentary — it rolls out like a mystery or a procedural thriller. Like the best true crime dramas it teases you with the basics to start with and then slowly reveals key details.
All the flashbacks in BLWTKWHTBL are told with miniatures, brilliantly realized by Shelley Acker and Iris Sutherland — models of homes, interiors and exteriors, with dolls representing various characters. What a terrific idea to illustrate a time otherwise passed, with many conjectured scenarios in a possible murder. Over the miniatures and a sometimes playful, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes intense score, Bernie and his friends and family share the stories and memories. They explore the fates of previous generations.
The basic information is this: One winter’s night Bernie’s grandfather went to a mess hall at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick. At some point later he came home. His grandmother awoke and found her husband in bed, bruised, bloodied, and battered. At some point in the night it looks like he fell down the stairs into the basement. Was he thrown down or did he just stumble? When he was taken into care, the doctor on the case allegedly attacked his patient and beat him further. Why? When he was flown to Halifax, the ambulance he was in taking him from Shearwater to the hospital was struck by a train. How did that happen? He died in hospital the following morning from his injuries.
The younger Bernie Langille starts by saying to the camera how unbelievable this all sounds, and then proceeds to explain all he knows, and dig deeper.
As Bernie pieces together his hidden family history through facts that are available — a few clearly provided by the documentary team’s research — we go on this journey with him. His intention is clearly stated: The mystery of his grandfather’s death has informed who he is. He’s inherited this darkness, and he wants answers so he doesn’t pass any of it onto his young daughter.
And as with so much in life, more facts don’t necessarily reveal what actually happened, but the journey provides him a truth that he can live with.
That’s what the film is really about: managing uncomfortable legacies, especially around the toxic behaviour of men. These actions may have been the result of trauma related to having served, the veterans who didn’t have the tools to understand their own psychological damage and passed it onto their kids. Or maybe it’s just that anger was one of the few emotions men of that generation were comfortable sharing.
Whichever it is, sometimes looking directly at the darkness shows you a light to illuminate the way forward.
This is relevant to so many of us, and may be one of the most important things we can do: recognize and come to terms with the trauma of the past, and work hard not to repeat it.