February 1968, Cpl. Bernie Langille of the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at New Brunswick’s CFB Gagetown, died after a series of odd circumstances and now his grandson, with the same name, is trying to solve this family mystery, followed in Jackie Torrens' documentary Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille (world broadcast premiere on Nov. 27, at 9:00 p.m. ET on documentary Channel).
“I met Bernie Langille quite unexpectedly about six years ago, I was on Twitter one night and this man I didn't know started sending out this series of quite unusual tweets,” Torrens told Yahoo Canada. “It began with him saying I'm named after my grandfather, I never met him, he died 15 years before I was born and he died in 1968 under really odd and mysterious circumstances.”
“He started to lay out the story of what he knew about his grandfather at that time and he was asking the public for help, for any help that anyone out there might have, because his family had basically been living with this mystery for a half century.”
What happened to Cpl. Bernie Langille?
On Feb. 8, 1968, Cpl. Bernie Langille went out to have a drink with some friends and he told his wife, Annie, to go to bed and not to wait up for him. She woke up in the middle of the night, feeling something wet and sticky. Annie's husband was in bed beside her in a pool of his blood.
Cpl. Langille was rushed to the Oromocto hospital in New Brunswick, where a team of military medical personnel looked after him. He needed air evacuation to get him to Halifax, which was delayed without a concrete explanation, and Cpl. Langille was assaulted by the military doctor who was put in charge of taking care of him.
Then there was an accident with the ambulance transporting Cpl. Langille, which was hit by train crossing the tracks. Cpl. Langille was still alive when he made it to the hospital in Halifax, but he died a couple of days later.
There was an investigation done by the military but the testimony was kept from the family. Military officials said it was a no-fault fall down the stairs and seemingly didn't take responsibility for any of the events that occurred. This was also a time when there was secret testing of Agent Orange at CFB Gagetown.
All these circumstances left the Langille family to believe that Cpl. Langille may have died as a military cover up.
“[Bernie Langille] laid out the story for me, as much as he knew, when we met for coffee and he had some documentation at that time, which backed up this very strange story,” Torrens said. “One thing he said to me at that time, which stayed with me, was that for decades anytime he or another member of his family tried to tell other people about the story that happened to their loved one, it was so fantastical that they wouldn't be believed.”
“So that added to the pain of this unresolved event around the death of their loved one. The fact that they couldn't find any answers, they weren't validated and they weren't even believed in what had happened.”
Recreating suspicious events with miniatures
One of the most unique aspects of Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille is the use of miniatures, particularly to dramatize the events that happened in the 1960s, with these incredibly detailed figures created by Canadian artists Shelley Acker and Iris Sutherland.
Jackie Torrens got the idea to do something with miniatures when she was doing a radio documentary for CBC on artists that creature miniatures. The filmmaker then happened to be reading about the work of American criminologist Frances Glessner Lee, born in 1978, whose hobby was making miniatures, but she also wanted to go into forensic science. Lee is now known as the "mother of forensic science," after specifically creating miniatures based on crime scenes, which are still used to train homicide investigators to this day.
“This is the story I've been waiting for, to use this concept for, and then when I met with Bernie that feeling was further solidified,” Torrens said. “This is a dark family fable that Bernie grew up with as a little child and so the miniatures kind of give a subversive feeling, they go against how you might expect to see miniatures used in a sort of suitably sweet and childlike way.”
“Then they just had practical applications so that, depending on who was telling the story, we could change the world of the miniatures up quite easily, as well. They just were wonderful for practical things, like we can't go back to 1968, we couldn't recreate it in real life size, but we could recreate it in miniature. There were even things like part of the story takes place on a military base, it's notoriously difficult to gain access to military bases, but we can recreate them in miniature.”
'Intergenerational trauma, family narrative and their effect on individual identity'
A core aspect of this investigation stems from Bernie Langille finding his grandfather's S.I.N. number on his gravestone, put there by his grandmother, which allowed him to be able to track down the medical examiner's report. That document sparked a lot of the questions that Langille and Jackie Torrens seek to answer in the documentary, from medical questions to legal inquiries.
“I always felt from the very beginning that,...the objective wasn't to find out all the answers and to tie everything up into a tiny little bow," Torrens said. “I felt that this story was really…about intergenerational trauma, family narrative and their effect on individual identity.”
"After this event happened to Cpl. Langille, the family really deteriorated, as families often can when they go through traumatic events. There were problems with anger, there were problems with addiction and it all came from not getting any help, and not getting any answers. Bernie...did what a lot of children in that environment do, where they essentially become quite neutral and outwardly nonemotional, and Bernie even says at one point in the film, 'there were people around me that did all the feeling.'"
As Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille progresses, Langille largely presents himself as someone who is reserved and not particularly emotional, but that wall starts to crack as more information about this mysterious case is revealed.
“[Bernie] was really under the impression that this hadn't affected him at all, how could it, he had never met his grandfather, he wasn't there for the event,” Torrens said. “It was as he went along on this journey that it became apparent to him that no, he in fact was affected in some very profound ways.”
“That became extremely important, as Bernie was on the verge of becoming a father himself as we were filming, and so the fourth generation of Langilles was just about to be born. It put Bernie in this position where he had to examine, was he now going to be passing along the narrative that he had grown up with, and was there perhaps an alternative to that."