April Butler, by her own admission, has daddy issues.
A big one centres on a revelation that inspired her documentary Father Figures. She learned that Dale, her 73-year-old father, was dating Girlie, a 23-year-old Filipino woman he met online.
Father Figures, which the Victoria filmmaker produced and directed with Gillian Hrankowski of Vancouver, was conceived as a quirky exploration of an offbeat romance — a “win-win” proposition in Dale’s eyes, which was why he and his fiancée agreed to go on camera.
The film, which makes its world première Saturday at Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, took on an unsettling life of its own, however. It metamorphosed into a painful, personal exploration of Butler’s own relationship with her father.
“I became way more involved than I thought I’d be,” said Butler, 45, whose difficulty trying to get her head around her dad’s decision to marry a potential stepmother who would be half her age worsened once she discovered a dark secret.
You feel sucker-punched when it’s revealed in a documentary that is disturbing, revealing and heart-wrenching, its tropical-paradise imagery in stark contrast to poverty in the Philippines and ugly western entitlement.
The film, shot over 13 months in B.C., the Philippines, Hong Kong and Bali, is easy on the eyes but hard on the heart, especially when Butler vents her repulsion while struggling to come to terms with painful truths about a largely absent father.
“I was comfortable talking to the second camera because it was Gillian shooting,” recalled Butler, who previously collaborated with her friend on 2008’s The Brothel Project. “I liked the immediacy and rawness of that.”
Exploring her relationship with her father as a filmmaker was a mixed blessing, she said.
It gave her the freedom to ask tough questions, such as why older western men feel it’s OK to hook up with desperate young Asian women, yet it also prompted deep emotion and tears.
“Her life’s a better place because I’m in it,” says Dale, reasoning his young bride-to-be cares for her “trophy husband” in exchange for a home, food and security. “And my life’s a better place because she’s in it.”
Explains Girlie, a family-minded Catholic girl: “My dream is to have stairs [where] like a queen, you come down.”
“Prayer isn’t birth control,” Butler drolly observes when Dale confides he prays Girlie doesn’t get pregnant.
His deceptive attitude — and how he has given Girlie the impression he’s a millionaire — sets off alarm bells.
“Champagne dreams on a beer budget. It’s not going to happen,” says Butler, accustomed to empty promises from her father, a retired truck driver and dreamer who was rarely home during her childhood in Kamloops, where her mother died six years ago.
Does she warn Girlie her fiancé is raising false hopes? Or is Girlie actually taking advantage of him?
As such conflicts unravel, dramatic tension rises organically in this fascinating point-of-view documentary.
While films like My Thai Bride have explored such controversial relationships, the filmmakers were determined to create a more raw and intimate portrait, capitalizing on the access the duo had staying in their subjects’ home in the Philippines.
“It’s weird to examine a relationship this way,” admits Butler, who at times wondered if she was being played.
“He really said that? Did he really do that? Yeah, he did that. Who is this man? Can he really be my father?”
Father Figures was much different than The Brothel Project, which was more journalistic, said Hrankowski.
“You’re following two other people and letting that unfold, but you can’t help but have [April’s] perspective,” said Hrankowski, who had to learn how to use a high-definition camera to shoot April’s sequences.
“My first scene was April [nervously] meeting Girlie. No pressure!” she said, laughing.
They also had to ensure their friendship didn’t affect content.
“As a filmmaker I’m seeing my friend fall apart,” Hrankowski said. “What am I going to do?”
The seasoned documentarian dismisses suggestions Father Figures could be perceived as exploitive.
“There was no arm-twisting,” she said. “Dale and Girlie really wanted to do this, to share their relationship.”
Although it wasn’t easy airing her dirty laundry, Butler hopes Father Figures will inspire others to honestly address theirs.
“Everyone puts out their perfect little lives on Facebook, all bright and shiny, but when you get to the nitty-gritty, everyone has some kind of sh-- we’re covering up,” she said. “If we were more open it’d be easier to be more supportive.”
Butler has become estranged from her father since their last exchange, but she says it’s liberating.
“When I realized I don’t need him in my life, that I can’t get what I want from him, it’s very freeing.”