My father was a cult leader

We spoke to filmmaker Kalina Bertin about her twisted family portrait, Manic.

On paper, there’s nothing particularly unusual about 28-year-old filmmaker Kalina Bertin’s early life.

Born on the Caribbean island of Montserrat to a Québécois mother and American father, she moved to her mother’s native Quebec at age six following her parents’ divorce. It’s really only when her father was murdered in Thailand in 2006 that she uncovered the truth: her father, George Patrick Dubie, was a cult leader and con man who had been fathering children and running cons since the 1970s. In the years following her father’s death, Bertin’s older siblings Félicia and François Sean started exhibiting signs of manic depression. Bertin started drawing a link between her father’s life and her siblings’ struggle with mental illness. Manic, her first film, sees Bertin explore both the past and the present and try to draw a link between both.

“It’s always challenging when people ask me when the idea for this film started, because I feel like it started when I was a child,” says Bertin. “When you take a step back and hear people talk about your film, you start seeing new things. My producer was saying that, you know, this film actually took 28 years to be done. I think, officially, the oldest archive footage in the film is from 1994. It took me four years to make this movie, but when did it actually start? It started when I was born!”

More than just an exposé of her father’s complicated life (which includes a short-lived marriage to one of the original directors of the Herbalife nutrition supplement corporation), Manic also approaches Bertin’s own family life with a fly-on-the-wall approach. It’s a dense topic, considering her father’s life has plenty of material for a documentary of its own.

“I think it would’ve been a different style,” says Bertin. “It would’ve been almost like an Alex Gibney film with a lot of sit-down interviews. I felt there was so much richness because my father’s story ended when he died, but it carried on through his blood lineage. I felt that there were so many fascinating things happening in the present that I had to involve my brother and my sister. For me, it was much more fascinating and a bigger challenge to try to cross over my father’s story and our story.

“Making the film for me was reconnecting with all these people who were part of my daily life, but also with my mother,” she continues. “For so long, I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t give me that information. When you’re a teenager, you want so much to understand where you come from and who you are. I don’t look like my mother — I look like my dad, so I wanted to know who was this man that I came from and who I remembered having a good relationship with. Sometimes he was amazing, and sometimes he was frightening. I’d ask my mom questions, and she wouldn’t answer. ‘I’ll tell you sometime when you’re older.’ And then when the article about my dad’s death came out describing him as a cult leader, I asked her, ‘Why wouldn’t you tell us this?’ Now I understand she was just trying to protect us.”

Bertin has said that she went to film school explicitly with the goals of making this movie at some point. I asked her if she felt, as I do, that coming out of the gate with a film this explicitly personal sets the bar remarkably high.

“It does!” she laughs. “I just felt this urgency at that point. I went to film school to make this film, and I knew that there was information about my father out there… but what really happened was that in 2013, when I finished my bachelor’s degree, my sister had her first psychotic break. At that point I felt like I just had to pick up the camera and start shooting. In that sense, the film just happened. I couldn’t delay it anymore!”

Manic is hard to watch at times as Bertin turns her camera towards her siblings in the middle of a manic episode. In one scene, her sister matter-of-factly explains to the camera (with her pre-teen daughter by her side) that she couldn’t sleep because angels were giving her directions all night; in another, her brother begins haphazardly throwing knives at the wall. What’s most stunning about these sequences is that they have little of the artifice one might assume would come with the territory. While they’re definitely disturbing, they’re also… sort of underwhelming, if you’re used to Hollywood depictions of mental illness.

“I think it was very important to show that they are emotionally intelligent human beings, but that they get sucked into something that’s out of their control,” she says. “With bipolar disorder, there’s a way to medicate it in which you can find stability. You come back to your senses. It’s up and down, and often when you come out of it, you don’t even remember what happened when you were in psychosis. So that footage also enabled them to step out of their own state and see their condition in a way that they hadn’t before.

“I was scared shitless,” she says when asked about the idea of putting her own family on display and knowing that, at any time, they may want to pull out of the project entirely. “I told them they could pull out anything they wanted, but I felt that there was no other way of getting access. That’s also how they can allow you to film them in moments of crisis, because they can trust themselves to just let go. If they don’t like the way they’re being portrayed, they can just take it out. But I didn’t want us to be too worried about the camera being there. I just wanted us to be real.” ■

Manic opens in theatres on Friday, Feb 2.