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Q&A: Director John Curtin on Sibling Rivalry

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Sibling Rivalry airs on CBC Television, September 6 at 9pm and on CBC News Newtork, September 7 at 10pm.

Do you have a brother or sister? Did you - or do you - fight? It's the longest lasting close relationship any of us will ever have. If so, you'll want to watch Sibling Rivalry: Near, Dear & Dangerous on CBC's Doc Zone - narrated by Ann-Marie MacDonald - on Thursday, September 6, at 9pm. In fact, even if you don't have that special relationship, John Curtin's documentary provides a fascinating insight into the relationships between siblings - with some extreme examples. We spoke to John about his latest documentary and some of those examples, like the NHL's Staal brothers and the infamous rivalry between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine:

CBC Live: Tell us a little bit about the documentary and why you think we should sit down and watch it.

John Curtin: Well, the documentary is all encompassing in terms of what the viewers might want to see. Even if you don't have any siblings, you've probably missed having them. A lot of only children would have liked to have had siblings and I think this film tells you that it's a double edged sword. There are pleasures and pains to having siblings. We take a look at five families, which include the Staal brother of hockey fame, two Hollywood actresses who vyed for the same Oscar in 1941 - who are still living and haven't talked to one another for forty years - and several other families.

I think some of these example of sibling rivalry are extreme and there's a lot of viciousness, at least in the case of the actresses. Everyone can identify with it because there are very few large or small families where there isn't friction between the children, because it's normal to have sibling rivalry. I think the core of it is when each child is striving to maximize the amount of love and attention he or she gets from the parents.

Olivia and Joan - the actresses. You said it was an extreme case, but did you come across any other examples that extreme?

JC: Before we made the documentary we looked around for the best examples. I chose Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine - both of the same parents by the way - because the older sister was so spiteful towards the younger. She wouldn't even allow Joan to use the famous family name of de Havilland, which of course is the aircraft maker. I was looking for an extreme example as you do when you make a film because no one wants to know about a happy family - they're boring! The de Havilland/Fontaine one is a classic... the thing that surprised me and drew me to that was that these two women are still alive. I put several other people in my film, and almost all the people I told were shocked to find out that Joan - who starred in Gone with the Wind - was still alive. That's a pretty amazing story. Olivia de Havilland turned 96 just last July, and Joan is just fourteen months younger.

One of the other stories, the Staal brothers, is also a pretty crazy story in itself. Four brothers that are all incredibly successful.

JC: Yeah it is, it's an amazing story. It's the most edifying of the five stories we did. I went up to Thunder Bay to film them, expecting to see four brothers more or less at each others throats. But, actually, they come from a very loving family. Great parents, you know, who love them all. Obviously there are a lot of competitive juices flowing in the Staal family. We cite the example which everyone knows now of Eric giving his brother Marc a bad hit. A legal hit, but it hurt Marc and put him out for 37 games with a concussion... but obviously that wasn't intentional. That's an example of what can happen sometimes when there's a sibling rivalry.

They were a great family. It's amazing that all four of them are in the NHL - although the youngest, Jared, isn't playing in the big league yet, but I imagine that he'll make the leap soon.

The question was inevitably going to come up, so was it hard to ask Jared about the prospect of not making it to the big leagues?

JC: Yeah, we did ask and you know what? I think he was prepared for that. The boy's pretty mature, in the sense that, yeah, they're all rooting for Jared but it's incredibly difficult to get to the NHL. In a family where your three other brothers are so successful by comparison you might feel like you're not being successful, but hey, he makes a lot more money than I do being unsuccessful. He's skating and playing hockey in the United States, I don't think he sees it as the end of the world. We did ask, and he seemed calm - if it doesn't happen it doesn't happen. But he's still got a few more years before he can succeed on that level.

You've also done a documentary called Fly Me To The Moon. How do you think Neil Armstrong's brother felt when he was saw his brother taking those first steps on the moon? Do you think he was happy or thinking... "how on earth (or beyond) do I live up to that?"

JC: That's an extreme question! I didn't know either of them, but I imagine when your brother does something incredibly historic like that he couldn't have been anything but proud and happy to have such a brother. Although, I don't know. Personally... I have an older brother and any success he has always makes me feel happy rather than envious, because I think "oh well, we share the same genetic pool." Not all sibling rivalries are bad, you can feel a little bit of competition but it's not necessarily bad when the other brother or sister has some success. I guess it depends on the level of the two. If you're quite close in terms of ability it will probably just egg you on and give you confidence. Your brother did it or your sister did it, why can't you? If, however, you're outclassed, there's some huge genetic discrepancy or whatever... then I think things get more difficult.

Just looking at sibling rivalry in general, a lot seems to be determined by where you come in the family. It's difficult to make generalities about any of these things, but the one thing I found mainly true is that it would be the older child having a problem with the next in line. Especially when the older child is the oldest in the family and there are only two siblings. That means the younger brother or sister might be a bit spoilt. Also, that older child was once an only child, so he or she feels usurped on the arrival of the second child. The only child actually knows the kind of paradise when they were the only child in the family and suddenly now there's someone else. That's always hard to digest. If you're fourth in line, or fourth in the family well you've already seen... you came into a situation where, you know, you were never the only one.

What surprised you most that you found out during the making of the documentary?

JC: Another difficult question... I was surprised by the venom in the relationship between two girls, namely the Hollywood actresses that couldn't find it... even towards the end of life for God's sake... in your seventies, your eighties, your nineties... you can't forgive and forget? You'd think at some point you could let go of your childhood problems and just embrace your brother or sister, but they couldn't do it. That surprised me.

john-curtin.jpgJohn Curtin is a Gemini Award winning filmmaker and journalist with more than 25 years of experience in television, radio and print. Curtin has freelanced for The New York Times and reported from abroad for CBC and National Public Radio. He has produced and directed twenty one-hour documentaries, many of which have been broadcast on the CBC.

Sibling Rivalry: Near, Dear & Dangerous airs on CBC Television, September 6 at 9pm and on CBC News Newtork, September 7 at 10pm. You can watch the whole documentary after it airs on the CBC Player.

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