Bernie’s Journey – Interview with Jackie Torrens

There’s a lot of movies with very long titles and lots of other content with very long titles. I will admit to being guilty of making really long titles myself in the past. Here’s a long title for an interesting movie: Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille. Before you ask, it’s not a fictional movie where the same nonsense happens like in Carl Naardlinger, but it’s a documentary that focuses on a true-crime story, and is told with miniatures. The story focuses on a man named Bernie Langille who died years ago and lots of family members in the Langille have different explanations as to what happened. But what really did happen? That’s what the other Bernie Langille wants to know. Named after the man who was his grandfather, present-day Bernie has heard nothing but strange versions of really disturbing tales of his deceased ancestor and he wonders what really did happen to the man where he got his name from? We go on a journey in the documentary directed and made by Jackie Torrens. Known for creating all kinds of content, Jackie is in charge of Peep Media over in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This film had premiered at Hot Docs and went through quite a circuit of film festivals this Fall, and I just had to speak with her about it. I wanted to know a lot from Jackie and she told me so many things that had more details than the tiny miniatures used in this documentary. Sit back and get ready for some stunning clues behind the stunning story of this documentary. This will impress you just as much as the unravelled mystery impressed me.


HNMAG: It’s quite a long title. Didn’t you feel a title that long was a bit extravagant?

Jackie Torrens: (laughs) I suppose. It’s certainly been memorable for people. At first the documentary started out as a short documentary in 2018 and at that time it was called Bernie Langille wants to know who killed Bernie Langille. I guess we just decided to make it longer for the feature.


HNMAG: And how exactly did it become a feature documentary?

Jackie Torrens: The idea was always to have a feature documentary on this story. When we encountered the story in 2016, I had already come up with the concept to do a documentary film using miniature sets for the re-enactments about 5 years before that. I had been the lookout for a particular kind of story which to utilize this concept and then when I came across Bernie Langille in 2016, my business partner Jessica Brown and I, we knew the concept was a bit off-beat and so we made the decision to make a short film as a proof-of-concept. The short film was made in 2018, took it up to hot-docs with the interest of making it a feature, and that’s exactly what happened. One of our meetings was with Jordana Ross of the documentary Channel., and we immediately commissioned it to become a feature. That was always the plan.


HNMAG: It’s an extremely dark concept for a documentary. When talking to people to get answers, were there some questions you wouldn’t dare ask?

Jackie Torrens: No, I don’t think so. It’s always a negotiation with the people who agreed to participate in the film and most especially, your protagonist. When Bernie and I began work on this project, we started with the questions that he had. At that time, he had just grown up under the weight of this very dark family fable and a few years before I met him, he had been able to track down the medical examiner’s report about what had happened to his grandfather 50 years before and from that report , he had a number of questions. Some of them were medical questions, some were legal questions, some were to just get more detailed accounts from people who were there at the time. With his blessing, I and my research team took those questions that he had and tried to get as many answers to those questions as we could find. We made a call to the public as well asking if there was anybody out there who might have known anyone in his family. A couple of people who came forward appeared in the film, so as you can see Bernie conducted the interviews. We would take him to these people and say “This is the person who can answer THIS question you had.” and then Bernie would conduct those interviews.


HNMAG: What about handling the more controversial content that may have made people uncomfortable?

Jackie Torrens: In order to help with the processing of this vulnerable material, we enlisted the services of Dr. John Whelan, who was the psychologist that appears in the film. He was a military veteran and his speciality is working with military families. He was brought on to help Bernie prepare for the journey he was about to take, and then he was also there to meet again with Bernie near the end to help him process the information that had been collected.


HNMAG: Did you discover a lot of things that shocked you? Did you have to keep some details out of the documentary?

Jackie Torrens: We did encounter information that was difficult and we hadn’t intended to encounter. But it wasn’t information that we felt we should be keeping out of the documentary or away from Bernie. I think when I started this, it’s a film that presents itself as a true crime story but then morphs into what I call an existential investigation into family narratives and their effect on individual identity. From the very start, I felt that really what was about a family that was tied to an event and a story that was responsible for causing intergenerational trauma.

Despite all the extra information they received, the documentary strictly remained at 78 minutes long, which is a good enough amount of time to tell the story, reveal some interesting perspectives and sum up the real cause.


HNMAG: Miniatures were used a lot in this documentary. Would it be any different if you used a live action set or cast? And how so?

Jackie Torrens: I’m sure it would be different if we went with a different concept or used a live cast. I think I would tend to argue that there’s lots of documentaries out there with doing the re-enactments differently. I think it’s unique to have the story told the way we told it. I was never particularly interested in using anything like stop-motion in animation. To me, I thought what was really important when it came to filming the miniature sets was the lighting of those sets. We use porcelain figures as well. Because they are inanimate figures, they can’t make expressions, but the light can help us portray different expressions on the figures faces as well as blend to an atmospheric feel. Then we used something called a probe lens because when Bernie’s out in the world conducting interviews, the interviews themselves are static, the miniature sets are also static, so I knew it was going to be very important that when we were filming the miniatures, the camera always had to be moving. We used the probe lens with that.


HNMAG: Working with miniatures was a new challenge for you, would you want to work with them more often?

Jackie Torrens: The idea came to me because 10 years before I had been doing a radio documentary about artists in Nova Scotia creating miniatures. At the same time I did that documentary, I was studying and inspired by and taken by the work of an American criminologist named Frances Glessner Lee. Around the 1920s she had created a number of miniature dioramas based on gruesome real-life crime scenes. They were called the nutshell studies of unexplained deaths and they were used at that time and still today to train police officers and detectives in the work of gathering clues and looking for evidence. I also think they’re incredible works of art. One thing that’s interesting about working with artists who create miniatures is they are detail oriented people. When you’re looking at a miniature diorama of something it shows you something that we don’t often have, which is a big picture perspective. 


HNMAG: Was it an interesting new challenge to use so many other different forms of art to tell the story?

Jackie Torrens: YES. It was a wonderful interesting new challenge. I enjoyed it very much, and the two women who created the 18 different sets based on the Langilles family story. They are two women based in Nova Scotia. Their names are Shelley Acker and Iris Sutherland, and before becoming the art department for my feature film, they had never worked in TV or film before. They were only miniaturists, so they undertook this challenge and under-threw the generosity of the Langille family. We had some photos and some home movies, and Iris and Shelly looked over that material in order to recreate with accuracy in what the Langille environment was like at that time. There’s actually a set in particular that is what we used to tell the story of Larry Langille, one of the sons who became quite obsessed with the story and we created the set that depicted his apartment. 

Jackie told me when Bernie Langille saw that set, his jaw dropped because that’s exactly how he remembered it as a child. Shelley and Iris had never been in that apartment but through the use of blurry home movies and photos they redesigned it so well anyone who lived there would think they had been there.


HNMAG: It also focuses on events from long ago. What else did you have to do to get the time period’s look just right?

Jackie Torrens: Shelly and Iris worked together to do that, but they took on a lot of that work so when they were recreating the funeral home, where Corporal Langille had his memorial service. Shelly went to her local funeral home and interviewed the director there about what caskets in the 1960s looked like, they would do the same vehicles, so a lot of historical research.


HNMAG: You also included a fair amount of old pictures from the past. Did you find they helped to tell the story better?

Jackie Torrens: Yeah, I think it was really important to have pictures of Bernie and Annie Langille especially. The miniatures and the figures we used in the miniature sets we used are one thing, but I think it was pretty essential at times to be able to be pictures of the real people as they existed. 


HNMAG: I also noticed there was a tense moment between Bernie and his Uncle. Were there a lot of moments like that through production?

Jackie Torrens: No, there weren’t, actually. There were members of the Langille family that couldn’t participate as it was too painful of them. Bernie’s father couldn’t go back in the past to revisit that. 2 of Bernie’s uncles agreed to film with us and help Bernie, and what Bernie wanted was to just see if he could find out any answers to bring any sort of possible healing and closeness to his family. He had grown up in this family that there was a lot of anger and pain. They have been really left in the dark for a half century, they had this event happen to a loved one and then very quickly the military closed rank. It held 2 short-lived investigations into the matter ultimately not finding themselves responsible for anything, but the family did not have any access to the testimony that happened during those times. When things are left to fester in the dark, they will so it was extremely generous of the Langille family members who did agree to film with us. But it wasn’t easy for them.


HNMAG: But you did even things out with these family members. Do you hope the rest of the family will see this and possibly it will even things out with them?

Jackie Torrens: I would only hope good things for the Langille family, and I do know that even though it was difficult, some of the information in the documentary we found, I know ultimately the Langille’s that took part in it are glad about it. Bernie himself said that he finds that the film has found light in the darkness and that was something he wasn’t expecting. 


HNMAG: What was it like at the beginning?

Jackie Torrens: Bernie was very much motivated to bring some sort of healing to his family but he was under the impression that this work did not affect him in any way. He would say how could it? His grandfather died years before he was born. He was never there for that event, and so one of the things that happens in the film is Bernie’s discovery that this indeed has affected him quite profoundly. As we were filming, Bernie had gone from being a divorced single man to then getting married again and having his first child on the way. The whole experience of doing this film made him realize he was now at a very important part in his life because he had a decision to make. Was he going to be passing along this family story he had grown up with, or was the family story going to change? That is definitely what the film is about, and family stories and how much of a strange legacy and inheritance they are for all of us.


HNMAG: Do you hope to find out more family stories like this for future work?

Jackie Torrens: I think this is my 8th documentary film so I do all sorts of different subjects for documentaries. I guess it just depends on what I’m interested in at the time, what comes along and what rings a bell. But certainly, family stories interest me greatly, and I could certainly empathize with Bernie’s journey. I lost my parents when I was a child and I wasn’t close with any extended families. That’s usually where you hear the first story of who you are and the people you come from. 


Jackie could relate having bits and fragments of a story just like Bernie. She says this story has caused other people to examine their family stories and inspires them to discover things they never knew. Jackie also got inspired by an experiment conducted by researcher Dr. Brian Diaz did using a generation of mice and the scent of cherry blossoms. He would shock them when they picked up the scent and this would start a trauma response that their children and grandchildren inherited. But affects like these that happen in humans, specifically trauma related stress can be reversed. It always helps if we discover the truth for what it is, and possibly get some professional help as well. 

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