Hot Docs 2021: Dressing down to chronicle Canada’s oldest nudist camp

Filmmakers Danny Berish and Ryan Mah got naked to make the short documentary Nude To Me

Shimon Karmel

Director Danny Berish and cinematographer and producer Ryan Mah (left) stripped off all their clothes while filming Nude To Me at the Van Tan Club.

NUDE TO ME (Daniel Berish) as part of CANADIAN SPECTRUM SHORTS: BODIES RELEASE. 20 minutes. Available now.

Filmmaker Danny Berish compares Canada’s oldest nudist club to a rustic Scandinavian spa.

Situated at the base of Mount Fromme in North Vancouver, the Van Tan Club was created by free thinkers in the midst of an idyllic forest way back in 1939.

According to Berish, the naturist movement began in Germany more than a century ago, preceding the rise of the beatniks, hippies, and hipsters.

“They were the original radical people,” Berish said in a phone interview. “That was their generation’s way of rebelling against their parents.”

How does he know this? His grandmother, Zella Berish, told him before she died that she had spent time as a young woman in a nudist camp in Quebec in the late 1940s. In fact, that’s where she met her husband and Berish’s grandfather, Issie, after ignoring her parents’ advice not to go there.

“She was originally engaged before she met my grandfather,” Berish said. “So she went up to the nudist camp and then she met my grandfather and dumped the other guy.”

He revealed this shortly after he and cinematographer and producer Ryan Mah posed nude for photo shoot for the Georgia Straight (NOW’s sister publication).

It was to promote their new short documentary, Nude To Me, which tells the story of the Van Tan Club through interviews with some of the members, none of whom are wearing any clothes. Genitals are discreetly blurred out, ensuring the film of this “secret garden” can be shown on CBC Gem in the future.

Berish learns body acceptance

Nude to Me will have its world premiere this week at the Hot Docs festival before heading to the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, which runs from May 6 to 16.

Berish, the director, and Mah both removed their clothes during the filming, no doubt marking a first in the history of BC documentary filmmaking. Berish said that by doing this, he truly learned that nudity is “normal.”

Secondly, he discovered that everyone he talked to about the film has an opinion about nudity.

“I’m very comfortable with my producing partners now,” Berish said. “I just learned that every body shape is different and, you know, to really feel good about that.”

He also quipped that Mah had to do a multitude of tasks in addition to cinematography, including working as the sound guy.

That’s because it was hard to find anyone else willing to work in the nude.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Talking was tougher than stripping

The story line interweaves the history of the Van Tan Club with Berish’s family story and how he feels about naturism after having experienced it.

“I’ve travelled with Ryan for almost seven years now,” Berish said. “We’ve gone all over the world. I’ve never seen him naked. Not once… It was an ultimate team-bonding experience.”

It took time for Berish to develop the courage to peel off his clothes at the Van Tan Club. But within five minutes of doing this, he said, it felt “completely normalized.” And he’s now far more comfortable in his own skin.

The hardest part was talking about it on-camera.

“I have a newfound respect for everyone who has ever been interviewed,” Berish said. “This is like instant karma for any director.”

Their coproducer, Erin Mussolum, didn’t feel comfortable stripping down in front of the crew, which meant she was sometimes the only person wearing clothes during the filming.

Mussolum said she was deeply inspired by the members of the club, who are very in tune with their natural surroundings. And she wonders if one day, she’ll ever be able to muster up the courage to do this.

“It stays with you,” Mussolum explained. “I saw a bunch of different naked people – all different shapes and sizes and bulges all over the place. Why can’t I do that? What is holding me back?”

This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.


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