REVIEW: El Toro
dir. Danielle Sturk
2018 | Manitoba | 44 mins | G
Once upon a time in St. Boniface, Manitoba, a family went bankrupt and opened up a truck stop diner to recoup their losses.
Multi-disciplinary artist Danielle Sturk tells the story of El Toro, her grandparents’ family-run restaurant, in a mixed media, experimental documentary. Audio of Sturk’s aunts, uncles, and their partners recounting the family’s oral history narrates the film. The visuals are a fanciful collage of stop-motion, animation, models, family photographs, archival footage and re-enactments. Each frame is visually intricate. From paper-doll-esque illustrations to dioramas of dollhouse miniatures, the details draw the viewer in.
Roma DeGagné was pregnant when the family went bankrupt. Out of work with eight children, her husband Joseph took a job on the trains as a cook. His paycheques were feeble, and life was grim, until a local business owner offered them a loan on trust to get back on their feet.
From a muddy shack in the middle of a parking lot, they opened El Toro’s Cafe, between meat-packing plants and farmland. The diner was a new start for Joseph and Roma, but it also became the centre of the eight DeGagné siblings’ lives. The girls worked front-of-house, cabbing over from school to cover the lunch rush, and the boys were left to run the place in the evenings.
The DeGagnés knew their regulars by name. There’s a Homeric mythology around the pranks, the highlights, and the characters of El Toro’s –– a regular who made his millions on dog food, the man who was missing a finger –– it’s as if the The Odyssey were set in 1960s Manitoba. The restaurant no longer exists, but its red stools and speckled countertops witnessed memorable chapters in the DeGagné family history. Some hard times, and lots of laughs.
Represented in dreamy live-action re-enactments, and with animation fit for the sweetest Valentine card, one chapter documents the love matches that took place at El Toro. Many of the siblings met their future spouses at work. In the age of Tinder and Hinge, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when North Dakota seemed exotic, and a potential suitor could be judged by the freshness of his corn.
Sturk’s combination of eclectic visual styles underscores themes of nostalgia and family lore. Memory is a trickster. And that becomes apparent as the DeGagné siblings guide the film through the chapters that defined El Toro. As with most family stories, everyone jumps in with extra details, speaking over each other, fleshing out the story and comparing memories.
In this film, the story brings the visuals to life. When there are differences in remembering, Sturk’s visuals play along, with colour-changing diner counters and wardrobe changes for characters. Each detail of the story conjures up something sumptuous to feast your eyes on.
In El Toro, cows fly, pies dance, and snow made of shredded paper swirls, as a family recollects memories of home.
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