The essence of truth, unsimulated and unrehearsed, is hard to truly achieve in cinema given its collaborative, communicative nature and the need to respect people’s privacy. The pioneering documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov promoted the term kino-pravda (or ‘film-truth’) as a movement that captured naked reality on camera, but in many cases, kino-pravda took radical methods to achieve, such as hidden cameras and the restriction of information from unsuspecting subjects.
Cinéma vérité, the French film movement that took up where kino-pravda left off, is perhaps a logical extension of what Vertov envisioned, concerning itself not with trying to form or mold any subject to the director’s vision but with observing in as unobtrusive a way as possible. It’s sort of ironic, then, that Allan King’s vérité Warrendale — a decidedly observational film, one which weaves and swings its camera so as to not be in the middle of anything — films a world where human contact, intervention, and confrontation is at the heart of healing and understanding.
Warrendale, the titular Canadian children’s mental health facility that King filmed in the ‘60s, was run by child psychologist John Brown, whose approach to rehabilitation for disturbed youth included, as he put it, “a lot of hugging […] and bodily contact.” Brown reasoned that the facility “over-emphasize[d] certain areas of giving like this” because the center’s children had been “starved in these areas.” (Interestingly, the link between interpersonal contact and children’s mental health was made clear during the early part of the COVID pandemic, when 57% of Canadian children aged 15–17 reported worsened mental health following the introduction of physical distancing measures. While these social distancing measures were, of course, necessary, these figures suggest that not enough steps were taken at the time to account for the obvious toll they would cause psychologically.)
In this unflinching documentary, King’s camera observes the day-to-day life of the caretakers and kids of Warrendale, who live together in groups of eight. King’s portrayal of youth in crisis is at once empathetic and difficult to watch. Cinema vérité’s observational approach is often described as being dedicated to a cold, harsh truth, but there is clear intimacy in King’s direction — and, by extension, a great consciousness and care in his role as intruder in this very unique facility.
The camera purposefully operates on the level of the kids inside the center, both physically and spiritually. As expected, there is often commotion on display: when the children are raucous, the camera buzzes around like a fly, swinging and swerving to their movements. When they’re being physically held down by staff — a practice that Brown’s philosophy suggests allows the kids to freely express anger and frustration without risk of harm to themselves or others — the camera is lowered to the ground, positioning the kids in the center of the frame.
It’s not hard to see how a place with a philosophy of intimate contact between adult caretakers and kids and teens could draw whispered rumors of abuse, making Warrendale a source of major political controversy at the time in Etobicoke, Greater Toronto. However, when a “holding” session is happening or a child is acting out, the camera’s unblinking view of the entire process challenges viewers’ perceptions of Brown’s methods. The entire time, we’re witnessing something taking place that most of us haven’t seen before, which might elicit anger, frustration, or discomfort. For example, when Tony, a particularly foul-mouthed and excessively erratic young boy, whimpers and cries as three staffers hold him to the ground, it’s easy to consider that they’re abusing him — that he’s in trouble or in pain. He says that no one at Warrendale likes him, but gives a mischievous smile while doing so, poking fun at the adults who care for him and suggesting that he does indeed feel comfortable around them.
In another scene, a teenage girl named Carol refuses to get up for school, which leads to two carers at the facility holding her down. The situation is later discussed in a meeting with Brown, who explains why he thinks the caretakers took the wrong approach: “I don’t understand a holding session to get a kid out of bed… If you want to get somebody out of bed, you have to engage them to get them to function.” The film is not only observant of the children but also of how the staff handle them, where they make mistakes, and how the relationships between kids and staff work out over time.
After the 1966 resignation of Brown — who said that he was forced out of Warrendale by the Ontario Department of Welfare — the center fell back into outdated methods of treatment, with children beginning to run away and parents accusing staff of placing kids in solitary confinement. Warrendale was eventually shut down.
In a Warrendale sequence that would probably surprise a lot of audiences, a teenage girl sits curled up in bed next to one of the center’s caretakers, sucking on a bottle of milk while being read a bedtime story. (In Brown’s methodology, children of any age at Warrendale are allowed to be bottle-fed if they ask for it.) In another scene, a girl named Irene sits with tears in her eyes during her Warrendale anniversary celebration. When asked why, she says, “It’s kind of pathetic when your own mother can’t give you that kind of love and someone else has to do it.”
In both of these scenes, the caretaker is mostly offscreen, which allows the kids’ faces and emotional changes to be the center of the film’s attention. We also get to see the way they process love and caring and how they question and confront the voices of the caretakers. It is in this conscious decision-making that King makes his stand — that what’s important, and so often neglected, is allowing children to call the shots about their own feelings. Too often, the world dictates what kids should think and feel and how they should respond in turn.