It was meant to be a documentary about her 73-year-old fathers relationship with his 23-year-old Filipino girlfriend he met online. Instead, April Butlers journey detoured into an exploration of her own relationship with her dad.
Father Figures, which Butler made with filmmaker Gillian Hrankowski, premieres May 11 at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, which runs May 3 to 12.
The story, the older man, younger woman, its been done, Butler said. But no ones ever had this access. Its my father, my future stepmother... We stayed at their house. We got to really see their relationship, which I havent seen in other documentaries. That was really appealing... just to be able to really get into the depth of story.
It took Butler a while to decide to focus her lens on her fathers relationship. But reactions she received when she told others her father was dating a woman 50 years his junior motivated her to dive in.
It was surprising to me because a lot of men would go, Good for him! And I thought, really? That just seems wrong, she said.
Best friends Butler and Hrankowski, who met in 2008 when they made the Leo-nominated documentary The Brothel Project, travelled from Vancouver to the Philippines in 2011. Butler was nervous to meet what could be her future stepmother who was half her age and cynical but hopeful shed see their irregular relationship was based on love and made sense.
Early on, Butler interviews her 73-year-old father from Kamloops, Dale, about the relationship. She also interviews his girlfriend, Girlie, visits her family home and discusses the relationship with Girlies mother.
But having learned her father has lied to Girlie and told her hes been a successful businessman and a millionaire, on the eve of their wedding Butler has to decide what to do. Little does she know something even more shocking awaits her.
When the viewers not seeing Butler pointing her camera at Dale or Girlie, theyre seeing her trying to process her feelings, speaking directly to it.
A lot of the times Im talking very comfortably to the camera, but thats because Im talking to Gillian, Butler said. When things became really, really hard it was still because of our relationship. Thats what makes the film so raw and open.
Being behind the camera freed Butler to ask questions she would have never otherwise dreamt of asking her father.
There was that balance of being his daughter and doing my job and being a responsible filmmaker and asking the questions that people are going to want to know [the answers to], Butler said.
But none of it was easy.
It was a horrible time in my life and its hard to have that shown to everybody, Butler said.
She ultimately decided finishing the film was worth it because she believed she had a story to tell that was bigger than her relationship with Dale.
She and Hrankowski hope audience members will leave thinking about the entitlement Western men feel to have relationships with much younger women who feel these older men are their only avenue out of poverty.
The other part of this is that everybody goes along with their lives and says, Oh yeah, everythings cool, and they put on this happy, shiny face and everybody looks great on Facebook and nobody really talks about the shit that goes down in our lives, Butler said. If people were a lot more honest about whats going on, we could support each other better and we wouldnt be trying for this utopia life that is not attainable.
People whove learned about Father Figures have told Butler they too struggle with their fathers and they wish they could talk to their dads more directly.
But she anticipates some wont appreciate the frank look at her father.
My openness I hope doesnt come and bite me in the ass, she said.
DOXA Documentary Festival
May 3 to 12 at various venues