Falls doc Motel looks at low-income struggles
The new documentary Motel looks at the inhabitants and managers of The Continental Inn on Ferry Street in Niagara Falls. It premieres at the Hot Docs film fest April 29. PHOTO: Screengrab
Even as a kid, Jesse McCracken was fascinated with what was past Clifton Hill during his trips to Niagara Falls.
How did people live in this tourism town? What lay beyond the museums and waffle cones?
As a filmmaker years later, the Markdale director had another question: What happened to the city’s old motels once the corporate chains built their massive hotels in the tourist district?
“A lot of these smaller motels, as a result, were falling by the wayside,” he says. “I thought there’d be some sort of story in there. I approached a bunch of the older motels and started talking to the people running them.”
One stood out: The Continental Inn on Ferry Street, one of a handful of motels in the city operating as a boarding house. For many of the residents, unable to afford first and last month’s rent, the motel is their only alternative to the street.
For three years, McCracken visited the property for his 57-minute documentary Motel, premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival April 29.
He was especially fascinated with the motel’s night manager, Brian Clayton, and day manager, Linda Bissell, who accepted their roles with spiritual resolve.
During one grueling moment, Clayton reveals he once turned down two women who approached him for help. Within days, they were both dead.
“My intellect tells me that I’m not responsible for that,” he says. “My heart tells me I am responsible for that. It’s very difficult to live with that.
“I’m a motel manager. I’m an ex-journalist. I’m not trained to deal with things like that.”
Their Christian values form the heart of Motel’s story, says McCracken.
“This kind of unwavering love for anyone … to accept anyone who comes in and do their best to look after them, feed them and take care of them,” he says. “They’re essentially social workers.”
McCracken would often stay at the motel while filming, immersing himself in the stories of people hidden from the tourist district. While there were “bad eggs” on occasion, most of the residents supported each other.
“They mean this to be an in-between place for people,” he says. “Where they can come if they’ve had a bad experience, or something’s happened to them that’s put them in this situation. They can come and kind of get their life back together, and hopefully find something better.”
It’s a story he could find in most any city, McCracken realizes, but he was intrigued by the contrast with Niagara Falls’ fancy tourist district. The film opens just a few weeks after a team of Ryerson University film students released a four-minute short spotlighting the city’s slums.
“There’s something visual about it I was drawn to,” he says. “It’s interesting to see what happens when a town is built around a tourist attraction.”
Motel screens at Hot Docs on April 29, May 1 and May 6.