Documentary filmmaker Thomas Burstyn used to visit London, England with his family as a young boy. There, he stayed at a posh home in St. John’s Wood, not far from Abbey Road Studios, where his step-aunt Yolanda Sonnabend lived.
A few years ago, the Montreal native returned with his producer wife Sumner to that London neighbourhood. Thomas wanted to make a film about Yolanda’s career, as a revered costume and set designer for the Royal Ballet and a successful artist.
However, the film became something else when the Burstyns encountered Yolanda’s brother, Joseph.
“Joseph started to pick away at us and question our motives and our ability to tell the truth,” Thomas tells The CJN. “I couldn’t extricate myself from the thread of the story. [The film] was just going in a more of a personal direction.”
The Burstyns flew to London over a three-year period to make Some Kind of Love. By turning the camera on Yolanda and Joseph, Thomas investigated a family history he was not entirely privy to.
Slowly, he and his wife saw the artist’s biopic they went to make turn into something quite different, as they learned more about the complex relationship between Yolanda and Joseph.
In the film, Thomas explains he returned to London to search for his distant family. He reveals that after his parents died, he felt that the concept of family was broken in him.
Some Kind of Love debuted at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October and is opening for a limited run in Toronto on June 12. It is the Burstyns’ first film since This Way of Life, which was shortlisted for an Oscar.
Their latest film is part of a new wave in documentary filmmaking that focuses on the relationship between truth and fiction. These days more directors are revealing how the documentary maker makes the choice of what to show and leave out, which adds layers to the viewing experience.
“We’ve been always very aware of… the relationship of the filmmaker [and the truth],” Sumner says. “The moment you turn on a camera, everything changes.”
Thomas and Sumner arrived at Yolanda’s London home without an agenda. After each day of filming, they put the tapes of their recordings away. They wanted to arrive at the story naturally and not impose on what happened next, Sumner told The CJN.
Meanwhile, Yolanda’s house was so cramped and filled with oddities that the filmmaking duo had no room to open their tripod. The home was decrepit and messy, resembling a setting out of a Dickens novel. Painting supplies and portraits cluttered the rooms, which look as if they have never been cleaned.
“We didn’t film the one bathroom in [Yolanda’s] house because we didn’t want to make a horror movie,” Thomas jokes.
Despite the chaos inside, Yolanda was still working. Her artworks and designs have been featured in exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Joseph’s resume is just as impressive. He was a famed AIDS researcher working in the United States. He also co-founded the organization currently known as amfAR, the world’s largest nonprofit supporter of HIV/AIDS research.
However, the medical researcher was not happy to see the Burstyns filming in his sister’s home. One time when they visited, Joseph yelled at Thomas and Sumner and didn’t want them to take the camera out. They had to stand by his request for three days.
During the filmmaking, though, Joseph moved into Yolanda’s home to help take care of her.
“When we think we have captured their essence, they slide under a different light… reveal a new angle,” Thomas narrates in Some Kind of Love. “None of us can be reduced to a single frame.”
Some Kind of Love also explores Thomas’ efforts to reconcile with his estranged brother – a decision he says he made based on spending time with Joseph.
Despite Joseph’s initial hostility to the film, he has seen Some Kind of Love – and he loved it.
“We were completely shocked at his level of response to it,” Sumner says. “He said that he felt that [the film] was respectful and that we had told the truth.”