During Hot Docs last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with 112 Weddings filmmaker Doug Block. It was clear I was being fit into his already packed schedule, as an exhausted Block sat down across from me at a scavenged table in the Rogers Industry Center. Everyone was all abuzz, with interviews and robust conversation sprouting up in every which direction. Cameras were rolling while recorders recorded, and the odd flash shot a blinding glare in the midst of the chaos. There was nary an unoccupied corner, let alone a quiet enough space to conduct our interview.
Ushered into the room where media and industry passes were distributed, we found an unoccupied surface that was playing home to a slew of Hot Docs and other related buttons. “Is this you?” Block asked me, curiously, picking up a distinctly Canadian button. “No, this is not me,” I respond with a laugh. “This is incidental.”
Block starts off the questions with a swift “what are you?” Taken aback, I scarcely know what he means, until he clarifies he’s interested in knowing who I write for. A little back and forth get-to-know-you chitchat ensues, and we’re swiftly back to business. I profess my love for 112 Weddings honestly, and unabashedly. It was one of my favourite films of this year’s Hot Docs Festival. I personally recommended it to several people, including my remarried mother and stepfather as well as two friends who are newly engaged.
Admitting this is the first film of Block’s I’ve seen, he swiftly recommends 51 Birch Street. His 2005 film about his parent’s 54-year marriage, it neatly ties in with the concept of 112 Weddings. “[T]hat’s actually where I introduce the idea that I do these weddings on the side,” he says, “and introduce the concept of ‘Can You Tell?’”
“Can You Tell?” I ask. “Can You Tell if these marriages are going to work out?” Block clarifies. “I was much more arrogant at that time, […] thinking I knew that I could tell. And then my supposedly happily married parents turned out to have secrets, and all sorts of revelations come out about just how unhappy they had been […]. I no longer think it’s predictable.”
The premise of 112 Weddings finds Block, a documentary filmmaker by passion but a wedding videographer by trade, revisiting some of his most memorable weddings to find out what’s happened since I Do. It’s with this revelation about Can You Tell that I inquire if he could tell about any of his subjects.
“I thought I could,” Block says. “Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. But it’s not like I had big inklings, you know. People on their wedding day, they look like they’re really happy. And they also look a little shell-shocked, so it’s hard to tell.”
When asked for his opinion on the concept of a successful marriage, Block laughs. “I don’t know. I’ve been married 28 years, isn’t that good?” he asks. “[…] I think it’s the quality of your time together. I’d like to think a […] brief, intense marriage can still be wonderful.”
An audience member at a screening for 51 Birch Street, in the throws of a heavy discussion on marriage, likened Block’s parent’s marriage to a business. “If this was a business that had lasted 54 years,” Block continues, “wouldn’t you have called it a successful business? Why isn’t this considered a successful marriage? And it does make you wonder.”
Having been married almost three decades, there’s little about marriage that could shock Block. “I think I was surprised by how open and candid all of them were,” Block adds of his subjects “[…] It was almost as if I were a marriage therapist, and I was giving them free therapy. [T]hey embraced the idea very quickly by agreeing to talk to me in the first place, but they quickly got into some very candid areas.”
“[M]any of the issues that came up […],” he added, “like a kid coming up with cancer, or parents aging and dying, [getting] laid off from a job or not making as much as you’d hoped you’d make – that doesn’t require that you be married to experience it. So I was very interested in how it veered off into this whole questioning of why we get married in the first place.”
For some couples, Block suggests, marriage serves a basic necessity. Janice and Alexander, for instance, had a partnership ceremony thirteen years ago. They had no interest in or need of a marriage license or the legal and financial perks that came with it. Now, two daughters later, their opinion on the matter has changed.
Lesbian couple Anna and Erica, on the other hand, fascinated Block because, in spite of the fight for marriage equality, they weren’t getting married for political reasons. “[I]t’s a kind of welcoming into the fold by society,” Block adds. “[I]t’s a way of showing you belong. Which, I think, for a couple that’s been treated as outsiders, is really important. I think, when I look at the reasons when I got married, there’s a lot of truth for everyone in that. You feel this weight of expectation of others.”
“[I]t’s also parents saying ‘when are you going to give us grandchildren,’ as if you can’t give them grandchildren without being married. It’s that this is society’s norm. It’s the expectation that you get married, and we make judgments if you don’t.”
I asked Block if this project had taught him anything about his own marriage. I was eager to see if he’d had a Eureka moment while trying to shed some light on the institution of marriage for the rest of us. “[Y]ou can’t help but compare yourself to others,” he began. “I think that’s why we’re always so nosy about other people’s marriages. And unfortunately the way it manifests itself in the culture is through celebrity magazines. [I]sn’t it fun to see some celebrity couple breaking up? We relish the idea that they’re so unhappy and miserable. But I think we can’t help seeing a couple that looks happy and [questioning it.] Are they just pretending? Or hating them, wondering what do they know that I don’t? There’s this kind of insecurity. Or maybe we love to know that they’re miserable so we can feel better about our own situation.”
“So, did I learn anything about my own marriage?” he continued. “I really love the couples in the film, and some of them have really great marriages. [S]ome are working it out, and others didn’t make it work. But it made me appreciate my own. It made me feel like we’re all struggling. But [my wife and I] have gone through the children thing, and the letting go of children phase, which is a tough one. And we’ve been there through thick and thin. We have a long shared history together.”
And then, like his subjects, he became candid on some of his life’s most personal details. “[M]y wife has had four episodes of clinical depression. [W]e’ve been through the deaths of all four of our parents. [W]e’ve had job transitions, and we’ve had successes and disappointments. [W]e go through these waves of taking each other for granted, and then really appreciating what we have, and that’s what a marriage is. I don’t envy anyone else’s marriage. I don’t care how rich or famous they are, or how genuinely happy they are. I love in the film where [Rabbi Jonathan Blake] says if he could wave his magic wand, he wouldn’t take away the struggle that is marriage. Because if you don’t have those mountans and valleys – if you don’t have the struggle to climb it, you don’t get to appreciate the vista from the top. It’s such a beautiful way of saying that what you really appreciate is the struggle.”
When asked if Block had any advice for young couples, he answered honestly and simply. “[L]earning to apologize is a very big thing. I say, Men, if you can learn to apologize, you’re going to go a long way. Admit when you’re wrong, and you’re wrong more often than you think. Learning to listen is good.”
On the necessity of being supportive, Block gets tongue tied at first. When he finds his words, he’s pointed and poignant. “[Y]ou have to live out being supportive,” he says. “It’s one thing to say ‘oh yeah, honey, great job.’ It’s another thing to make the sacrifices. To volunteer to be there with the kids so that your wife is free to go to her college reunion for three days even though you had something you were dying to do. It’s when your wife’s mother has Alzheimer’s and she’s in this facility that is beyond depressing, and you have to drag your poor daughter there and use up the Sunday that you’d love to be watching football to be with her. To drive so that she’s not having to drive both ways alone. It’s those kinds of considerations that go a long way.”