I first heard of this documentary, and the project it was based on, when I was in my late teens. Like many kids back then, I had heard about "free schools" and was interested in going into education but not the traditional kind. My dad was a Montreal high school teacher and back then I didn't want to be like him -- so I bought a subscription to THIS MAGAZINE IS ABOUT SCHOOLS -- what a cool name! -- published out of Toronto. Reading it made me believe new and exciting things were happening in Canadian culture and education. Such as Warrendale and its founder, John Brown.
Warrendale always struck me as wrapped in mystique. The first time I saw the documentary (in the early 70s) I found it more disturbing than anything, and I tried to forget about it. Or rather I buried my feelings about it. It wasn't the profanity that upset me. It was the atmosphere. And the disappointment of having been set up to believe it was a great documentary, when it wasn't even good.
Flash forward 35 years. A German documentary filmmaker who has investigated the CIA-MKULTRA mind control program gets in touch with me because I have written MY COLD WAR, about being involved as a child in Dr. Cameron's notorious experiments at McGill. Put together from childhood memories, certain writings I had published, strange "dreams" of being tortured as a little girl in an underground laboratory, MY COLD WAR also grew from my reading thousands of pages of documents and testimonies and books and articles about secret experiments on children that went on in North America in the 1950s and 60s.
The German filmmaker, Egmont Koch, introduced me to a German judge who had a strange story. "Judge Henry" was born in Toronto in about 1960 -- his birth certificate was falsified -- and had discovered late in life that not only was he adopted in infancy, but also that he was born at Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. After much research, and a fact-finding trip to Toronto, Henry had learned his real father was Dr. Martin Fischer, a psychiatrist who came to Toronto from Nazi Germany in 1940 and later worked at Lakeshore. Along with came the discovery that his presumed birth father was somewhat famous.
Henry showed me an excerpt from the documentary WARRENDALE in which Dr. Fischer appears. There was a noticeable physical resemblance suggesting that Henry and Dr. Fischer could very well be father and son -- he certainly looked much more like Fischer than he resembled his adoptive parents.
There is much more to Henry's story, but for me it felt rather peculiar to be watching WARRENDALE with a German judge who believed he was the product of some strange experiment. I sympathized strongly with his predicament, but as we watched the scene with Dr. Fischer, I felt embarrassed, both for Henry and also for Canada, the country that produced this film, because it seems so utterly obvious that Dr. Fischer is a fraud, or worse, a pedophile.
It was my second time viewing WARRENDALE, and it brought back the feelings I had in my twenties. I watched it again a few months later in 2011, and once again, I had to fight an urge to switch it off. Instead of feeling moved by its "compassion" -- as so many reviews I find it an unpleasant, dark, confusing film that leaves me with an unshakeable chill. It plunges me into a world of chaos that some inner sense tells me is bogus, with no roadmap to indicate who these children are or what their real story is. I also have a nauseating suspicion that these children are also being manipulated and abused in ways that the film covers over.
Recently, I watched it for the fourth time with someone who was there and appears in the film for a few seconds as a small boy.
"Larry" wrote to me last winter to say he had been at Warrendale and had a story to tell me about "mind control." Several emails and phone calls later, I realized I needed to meet Larry in person. I travelled to his city and over two days he told me his life story and shared his memories of Warrendale. He also brought the DVD. This time we could pause it, discuss each scene, analyse it -- in the light of Larry's memory of what was really going on.
Granted, he was a little boy back then, and his life after Warrendale was no picnic. Still, he has benefited from a happy second marriage and a dedicated therapist who supports his view that he is very lucky to have survived Warrendale.
As we watched the documentary, I gradually began to see how much of it had to have been staged. Warrendale is not cinema verité, or cinema direct, but some strange hybrid that perhaps grew out of Alan King's friendship with John Brown, Warrendale's founder and director.
The final "cathartic" scene where the kids supposedly grieve for the death of Dorothy, the West Indian cook, had always left me unmoved. Watching it with someone who was at Warrendale when it happened, I understood why.
This scene, or rather sequence, was set up from beginning to end. Only one child mourns hysterically: Carol. The others appear numb, confused about what they are supposed to feel. There is a discussion in which one boy asks how Dorothy died and gets no answer. Then Walter tells the children they are not to think they "caused Dorothy's death" with their "thoughts and feelings." Then staff begin forcing kids to the floor, and manufacturing the climax that the film called for.
There are many indications that Warrendale, the film, was faked for the cameras. Much like other films being made at the time, parts of it are improvised and parts are role-playing. Terry Adler and Walter Gunn play themselves interacting with kids and also demonstrating the "Warrendale method" in lengthy "holding" sessions that are both hard to watch and also fascinating.
The Warrendale agenda remains unclear, after all these years. Larry believe it failed to treat 'emotionally disturbed children' but actually taught them the lifeskills that enabled some to become drug dealers, prostitutes, small-time criminals, even assassins. Others would survive and move on to live normal lives -- although they would probably remain traumatized.
This experiment would then be passed down, remembered decades later as a milestone in Canadian documentary filmmaking. The "best ever made" according to CBC which originally refused to air it.
I have yet to find one negative review of Warrendale. It seems everyone who saw it, loved it. Nobody analysed it very closely. After all, reality is flawed -- and Warrendale is about reality. So they say. No journalist talked to the children to see what they thought about the documentary at the time. I was lucky to be contacted by one survivor, Larry, who feels the truth about Warrendale has never been told.
Warrendale kids, he says, were never taught the difference between right and wrong. It was a world unto itself, where kids did pretty much what they wanted, and were never disciplined for anything. One worker was stabbed in the stomach, another had a knife thrown at his head, a secretary was terrorized in her office -- and the kids were never even reprimanded. He says he witnessed, and participated in, extreme animal torture, with staff present.
There was more than one Warrendale. The film shows one version, designed for public viewing, but here and there the filmmakers's slipped and allowed a few glimpses into another Warrendale. Warrendale was only one of many facilities where children were abused by doctors and scientists. It just happens to have been made public at the time. We should ask ourselves: why?
John Brown ran many centres after the Ontario government closed down Warrendale. Famously, the kids "went on a rampage" insisting no one but Brown could provide the special care they needed. Several hitchhiked, others were picked up in cars by former staff, and one even walked 60 km. to be reunited with John Brown in Aurora.
Why did so many respectable people get on the Warrendale bandwagon? Why was it presented to Canadians as an exciting new model of child care? I have friends who trained with the Warrendale model. What lay behind it?
Scattered through this award-winning documentary are moments that don't quite make sense, unanswered questions and plot-threads left dangling. A few months ago, I had a shocking thought comprised of cold logic and gut intuition. This hunch doesn't go away -- it just keeps growing. It explains so much about Warrendale, the film, and also the place. This hunch kept thrumming in my mind as bits and pieces of the film replayed in my memory.
For reasons I will now explain, I believe Dorothy's death, near the end of the film, was not an accident. I also believe Warrendale Court was the headquarters of a trauma experiment disguised as a therapeutic environment. The makers of Warrendale needed a way to spice things up, to further traumatize the kids and staff -- if they weren't traumatized enough already.
Larry described flashbacks he has had to scenes of animal torture at Warrendale Court. He says he has asked others who were there, and some say they remember the staff laughing and egging the kids on. It doesn't sound all that therapeutic. Neither does "holding," the way Larry describes it. He says “holding” was used “all the time, for no reason” to bring a child to a state of uncontrollable rage and total breakdown. It was emotional provocation carried to physical extremes. Larry is not the only one making such claims.
"Holding" was part of "attachment therapy," whose discredited techniques have resulted in children's deaths and a number of lawsuits. Attachment therapy is really a bastardization of`the more scientific "attachment theory" developed by John Bowlby at Tavistock Institute in the early part of the twentieth century.
Tavistock should ring a few bells. It was the home of MKULTRA mind control and much else that we all need to research and learn about. At Warrendake, Dr. Martin Fischer was the expert who promoted holding as well as bottlefeeding. He came to Canada in 1940 courtesy of British intelligence (who set up Tavistock as part of their psychological warfare program). He was Toronto's first "psychoanalyst" although he never joined the professional association, never published a book or article, and went on to found the Canadian Art Therapy Institute where he is remembered for his`"legacy of harm" --according to former students who set up a website to expose him. Not such a great choice for director of Warrendale, you might think -- but Canadians are very trusting.
For all these reasons, I think Warrendale deserves some closer scrutiny.
There are reasons to think Warrendale was part of a vast program devised in the UK (and Nazi Germany) that aimed at breaking down the family, changing human behaviour beginning in childhood, and preparing a new generation to accept a New World Order.
That's quite an agenda, and one we never heard about back in the sixties.
What we heard about, back then, was that the times were a-changin' and certain visionary thinkers and artists would be our guides to a better world. In Canada, Alan King was held up as a pioneer of cinema verité -- also known as "direct cinema." Warrendale was his breakthrough film, as well as a milestone in Canadian culture, gathering awards and international attention. Hard to argue with the kind of unanimous praise that surrounded this documentary from the beginning, and continued through his lifetime until his death in 2009.
King prided himself on seeking the truth behind human behaviour, although "he was quite flexible about re-arranging things for dramatic effect," according to Liam Lacey and a string of other journalists, who all parrot the same example from the documentary: "... he saved a revelation of the cook's death, which occurred earlier during the filming, as a climactic event in the film."
Let's talk about that notion, before we talk about Dorothy: that an artist can reveal "the truth" by rearranging events for dramatic effect. Obviously, it works both ways, folks. Didn't anyone ever notice that? By rearranging events in a story, you can also reinvent, or conceal, the truth. Endings are absolutely crucial in storytelling. They reveal the story's ultimate meaning, the truth we've been waiting for.
In this case, a sudden, unexplained death that triggers an absurd eruption. "Absurd" because if you watch closely, the gruelling climax of Warrendale does not flow naturally and inevitably from what has come before. In fact, it appears to be a setup.
This will be hard for some people to accept.
By the way, I've studied Dramatic Structure. I've even taught courses in it at Canadian universities. Classical dramatic structure recognizes the absolute importance of chronology. That does not mean all stories should be slavishly told in chronological order -- nobody's saying that -- just that chronology matters. That's why crime investigators make detailed notes on when events have taken place, and in what order: because when one event precedes another, or comes at the beginning of a series of events leading up to, say, a murder, there may be a causal relationship between the earlier events and the outcome.
Causality is essential to storytelling, whether the story is the "cinema verité" or fictional kind. Without causality, stories leave us dissatisfied and frustrate our need for meaning. They also tend to be boring, unless they can provide sensational moments that re-engage our alienated emotions.
Warrendale is that kind of sensationalistic film. It relies on close-up shots of suffering, screaming children to make its impact felt. A lot of people have claimed to be deeply moved by Warrendale. But the fact of the matter, Warrendale offers little in the way of story. Warrendale is a really filmed theatre of the absurd, masquerading as a socially-sensitive documentary. As a drama, it fails to deliver a sense of meaning. At the end, we have no more insight into the lives of its protagonists than we did at the beginning.
For some people, this is because Warrendale captures "the human condition." If you think the universe is fundamentally absurd, fine. Stay in your corner, I'll stay in mine. But some works of art go deeper and actually bring meaning out of the depths of human suffering. I think I'll watch those, if you don't mind.
Allan King did not conceal the fact that the final scene in Warrendale actually occurred soon after he began shooting. In fact, he even bragged about it. It was, he said, a lucky break because it resulted in heightened emotions, i.e. more drama, by which he seemed to mean "more screaming." Canadian theatre tends to equate shouting with drama. In Warrendale, as in much Canadian theatre, there is no real violence, in the sense of characters following through on their extreme feelings -- but there is an awful lot of screaming.
But in hidden ways, it's a violent film. My hunch is the violence in Warrendale occurs off camera. Someone dies. In the film she dies near the end, but in real life Dorothy died early ob. One might therefore say we are watching the film backwards. Or that the climax actually occurs at the beginning and everything that occurs afterwards is dénouement. Or, my position: Dorothy's death was the triggering incident that lies behind all the extreme acting-out that makes up the story-line of this confusing film.
This causes me to wonder -- since the children's behaviour is so extreme throughout -- if what we are actually seeing is the aftermath of Dorothy's death, played out by the children in scene after scene.
If that's actually the case, then we are being misled by the director who wants us to think these children always acted the way they do in Warrendale. His cinema verité technique -- no narration of any kind -- leaves us with the impression this is just how it is at Warrendale Court.
By moving the defining event of the film to the end, without any explanation,he lets us walk away from the movie with the uneasy impression that this is a film about disturbed children, reflecting the human condition (i.e. we are all disturbed).
The really disturbing thing about all this is that audiences (encouraged by critics) seemed to accept this explanation, and came away deceived.
Some of us, on the other hand, were just disappointed.
Otherwise, Larry says, there were few rules. Kids frequently ran away from the centre. There were incidents of violence. One staffer was stabbed in the stomach, another had a knife thrown at him, a secretary was terrorized in her office by a band of kids. Warrendale kids -- known around the neighbourhood as "retards" -- were not welcome at the local movie theatre because they disrupted the showings. Nevertheless, he says, they were never punished, not even reprimanded, no matter how seriously they mishehaved. Warrendale did not teach kids the difference between right and wrong. Beginning when he arrived as a six-year-old he remembers being allowed to smoke and drink beer. Sex play, he says, was also encouraged and is mentioned in his records, which he obtained with great difficulty a few years ago.
Into this strange environment comes a film crew: director Alan King, plus a camera and sound person. They live with the children for a month before they start to film. And soon after they start filming, the children's favourite adult -- Dorothy, the cook -- suddenly dies.
I try to imagine how I would react, (a) if I were a child and (b) if I were Allan King. As a child I would be in shock. And then I would start to question, as one boy in the film does: How does a young healthy woman suddenly die for no reason? This question never gets answered. Instead the filmmakers focus on children being "held" in an exhausting scene that Larry and I agree appears to have been cooked up by the staff to satisfy the filmmakers' need for "catharsis."
If I were (b) Allan King, and I were shooting a documentary in a children's home, and the cook died during the first week, I might go ahead (like King) and film the children's emotional reaction to the announcement, and also the funeral a few days later. However, I think I would feel obligated to look into the cause of death. I'd make sure to record the children's conversations as they talked about it. I'd get the staff to weigh in, plus the results of the autopsy. I can't imagine this strange early plot twist not becoming part of the filming over the next seven weeks at Warrendale Court.
Of course I am not Alan King, and that's not what Alan King did. Instead what he recorded were all those scenes of (apparently pointless) emotional meltdown. Carol refusing to get out of bed. Tony climbing on top of an armoire to avoid going to bed. Children running away. Carol sitting on Dr. Fischer's lap as he coaches her in writing a nasty letter to her parents in which she expresses the wish never to see them again. Other children fighting with staff. Children spitting, crying and being "held" and bottlefed. Irene attending her "anniversary party" so drugged on Largactil she can barely walk and needs to be helped to sit down.
These are the scenes Alan King filmed in the weeks after Dorothy died. Dorothy's death never comes up until the end.
Neither am I one of those kids. But if I were, during those seven weeks I would have been wondering, from time to time, if not "Who killed Dorothy?" then "How did she die?"
Larry says they were never told anything, but that he overheard two staffers saying Dorothy had died after having an abortion. He passed this on to the other kids, although it may only have been a rumour. I can understand why, if true, the filmmakers omitted it. Abortion was illegal in Ontario in 1966, therefore it would have been the shameful, dangerous, backroom variety from which many women died.
Nevetheless. If there was secrecy about this traumatic event, these kids would wonder if it was connected to the presence of strangers on the property. How could they not? Which would tend to undermine trust, something Alan King emphasized was an essential part of the filmmaking process.
Do the kids in the film appear to trust the adults they are living with, night and day? I can't recall a single scene suggesting they do. And if I were a kid, living at Warrendale, and the one adult I could relate to mysteriously died, yes, I would be traumatized by the loss of that trusted person. And further traumatized by the presence of the film crew.
Under the circumstances, I think suspicion of "the strangers" would be a predictable reaction.
So two questions: how does most of Warrendale: the movie, avoid being about all that? If the filmmakers simply chose not to make Dorothy's death an integral part of the story they were filming for those seven weeks, what caused them to make that strange choice?
The more I think about it, the less sense it makes.
Maybe I'm making too much of all this. I'm really just trying to imagine that eight-week shoot as it really was. Some filmmakers are living with a group of emotionally disturbed kids whom they've previously been observing for a month, about whom by now they must know quite a lot. For instance, they must realize these kids have never been taught to tell right from wrong, and can be quite dangerous. Some have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, while others are autistic. There may even be a psychopath or two in the group.
Perhaps you've been told she died from an abortion. In that case, wouldn't you want to share this fact with the children, if only to gain their trust, i.e. so they will not start to think that you, the stranger in their midst, killed Dorothy?
Perhaps I'm over-reacting but I can't get over the "announcement" scene where Walter tells the kids they must not think their thoughts and feelings somehow causes Dorothy's death. A strange thing to be telling them, while Carol screams hysterically and the rest of them look stunned. The same boy who asked how she died, asks Walter what he means by that. Well, Walter explains, children often imagine they are to blame when someone dies. The boy still doesn't see why he should be devasted. "She was no relative of mine." When Walter repeats that the kids could not have killed Dorothy with their minds, the boy says "I'm aware of that." His expression seems to be saying, to Walter, "You're nuts to suggest we think we killed her."
Come to think of it, it's the film's only mention of a possible cause: that the children killed her, with their minds.
If this were a murder mystery, and I were Hercule Poirot, I'd look at motives while I waited for the autopsy report. Who had a motive for killing Dorothy? Who benefited most from her death? The children? I think not.
However Alan King said himself that Dorothy's death was the unforeseen event that gave Warrendale its dramatic edge. It triggered the children's fearful, angry outbursts which impressed critics and audiences around the world. Even Jean Renoir said he'd never seen a documentary as powerful as Warrendale.
So who benefited most? To be on the safe side, let's say: the camera.