Actress & Filmmaker
Jackie Torrens' new documentary Bernie Langille Wants To Know What Happened To Bernie Langille explores a mysterious death that has haunted a small-town Canadian family for decades.
The film has won numerous accolades and has been selected as the 2022 FIN Atlantic International Film Festival's Atlantic Gala presentation. Tickets are available now.
Torrens is the co-founder of Peep Media Inc., along with producing partner Jessica Brown, currently in its tenth year of production.
BSV: When was your first foray into documentary filmmaking?
JT: About 15 years ago was my first foray into documentary. I was doing pieces where I contributed to CBC as a freelancer. They were initially under the impression that I was some sort of sketch comedian or stand up comic, which I am not. So they hired me on a short term contract to do funny little pieces. I started morphing that more into the kind of pieces that interested me, kind of mini documentary pieces. Then I morphed that into longer format radio documentary pieces. I was a one person band. I loved the challenge of trying to tell a story, only through sound.
BSV: Tell us a little bit about your new film, Bernie Langille Wants To Know What Happened to Bernie Langille.
JT: Bernie Langille [Jr.] is a man that is named after his grandfather. He never met his grandfather; his grandfather died 15 years before he was even born. Corporal Bernie Langille served on the base of CFB Gagetown in the 1960s. According to whoever is telling the story, he either had friends over for drinks one night or left his home to go play darts with friends. In any event, he told his wife, Annie, not to wait up for him. So Annie went to sleep, and woke up in the middle of the night in a pool of her husband's blood. He was still alive, but he was critically ill. With the very odd sequence of events that happened after [she] discovered her husband it left the family under the idea that perhaps Bernie had seen something or what had happened to him was military cover-up.
BSV: How did Corporal Langille's death affect the family? Was it openly discussed?
It was openly discussed among everybody, including the grandson of Corporal Langille, who grew up hearing this story since he was small child. It affected the family profoundly. First of all, the family weren't given any answers. There was a short-lived investigation into what happened, but it was done by the military. They investigated themselves and found that they were not responsible for what had happened to him. The family wasn't given access to any of the testimony or documentation that went on at the Board of Inquiry. In fact, they weren't given any answers at all at the time. Within months, Annie Langille and her sons were kicked off the base. She was a military widow. She didn't have much money, the family struggled. The sons left home at the ages of 13 and 11. After that, other things plagued the family such as addiction and a lot of anger, as they felt this whole situation was unresolved.
BSV: Your film relies on miniatures to tell this story. During production were you nervous that choice might not work out?
JT: I was really inspired by the work of Frances Glessner Lee, who was a criminologist in the States around the 1920s. She did a series of miniature dioramas that are still used today to train police and detectives in their work. When I saw her work, I was very much inspired by her, and I wanted to tell a documentary story using miniatures. We made a short film first, as a proof of concept. We were lucky enough to meet with Jordana Ross [CBC Production Executive], who saw the short and commissioned it for feature. The artists who created the sets, Shelley Acker, and Iris Sutherland, ultimately created 18 different sets based on the Langilles' old family stories. The work they did was enormous and intricate, and exceptional.
BSV: As much as this film is about the story of Corporal Langille's mysterious death, it's also about generational trauma. I think there is, of course value in understanding where we come from, but is there a point for you where that quest becomes too involved?
JT: There's that expression, the truth hurts. I do think that can be true, especially when you're talking about a family that's lived in dysfunction. When we began this film, Bernie was very much under the impression that this was an event that had affected his family, but hadn't affected him at all. How could it? He didn't even know his grandfather. As he talked to different members of his family, and as he went to talk with different experts, and as he gathered more information, it became clear to him that this event had had a profound effect on him because it had affected the people around him.
During filming, Bernie went from being a single man to dating this woman named Christine who ultimately became his wife, and they had a child. Suddenly Bernie was faced with this decision: Am I going to pass on the narratives that I grew up with? Or am I going to change this family story? I think as much as the truth can hurt, there's power in knowing the truth, because then we can make decisions about our own family mythology.
BSV: I love true crime as a genre but, as you know, it can often be quite exploitative. How do you navigate telling traumatic stories?
JT: It's something I'm learning all the time. It was with Bernie's blessing that we took his questions and went to find answers. At the same time, we wanted to take care of Bernie because I don't want to do any harm. We would certainly check in all along the way The other thing we did was enlisted the help of a psychologist named Dr. John Whalen. He appears in the film. He is a mental health professional who works specifically with military families. He met with Bernie to prepare him for this journey.
BSV: How do you relate to your subject, Bernie Langille?
JT: I related a lot. I lost my parents when I was a very young child. I could really relate to this feeling that Bernie had, where you're given bits and pieces of a family story. That search of his to find out more I could certainly relate to, as well, the fragments that you do know, especially when you come from a family that has dysfunction and intergenerational trauma, and that can be a really heavy weight to carry.
This idea that Bernie faces by the end of the film of what is he going to do with the old narrative he's inherited. Is there some sort of alchemy that he can undergo now that he's got this new information? That's something I faced in my own life. I actually think that that's something a lot of people can relate to, family stories, and ultimately, they're kind of strange inheritances, aren't they?
Interview Recorded: 2022