As It Happens

How Canada's oldest nudist club helped this filmmaker understand his family history

Daniel Berish was going through old photographs with his grandmother one day when they came across one of her as a young woman in the forest, wrapped in a towel and beaming at the camera.

Vancouver's Daniel Berish learned that his grandparents met at a nudist club, so he headed to one himself

Vancouver filmmaker Daniel Berish relaxes in his birthday suit at the Van Tan Naturist Club in North Vancouver, B.C. (Nude To Me/Hot Docs)

Story Transcript

Daniel Berish was going through old photographs with his grandmother one day when they came across one of her as a young woman in the forest, wrapped in a towel and beaming at the camera.

"I was like, 'Where is this?' And she's like, 'Oh, that's the nudist club where I met your grandfather,'" Berish told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And I was like, 'Excuse me?'"

That conversation stuck with the Vancouver filmmaker. Years later, after his grandmother Zella Berish had died, he headed to Canada's oldest nudist club to learn more about the lifestyle and how it shaped his grandparents' romance.

Nude To Me, a documentary short, premieres Thursday at the Toronto Hot Docs online film festival and streams next month on CBC Gem.

Zella Berish pictured in front of a rock wall at a nudist club when she was a young woman. (Nude To Me/Hot Docs)

The Van Tan Naturist Club — tucked away in an idyllic forest on North Vancouver's Fromme Mountain — was founded in 1939. Berish called it "a hidden gem."

"You go up this old logging road and you're surrounded by just beautiful Douglas fir forests, and you come across this tiny little corner of the forest and it opens up to the club, and it's just a beautiful little secret garden," he said.

Van Tan residents adhere to the principles of naturism, a lifestyle that encourages non-sexualized nudity.

"Obviously, the word nature implies just that, right? I mean, you're connected to nature. You're touching nature and your bare body is touching nature," club member Michele Rauter, who is featured in the documentary, told Off.

Michele Rauter is a member of the Van Tan Naturist Club in North Vancouver. (Nude To Me/Hot Docs)

Rauter has been a naturist since 2009, when she was in her late 20s.  "I fell in love instantly because … the lessons that it taught me about myself were some of the most important ones that I've experienced so far in my life," she said.

She's one of the youngest members of Van Tan. When Berish and his team arrived with their questions and their cameras, she saw it as an opportunity to promote naturism to a new generation. 

"I believe that it is a dying breed, sadly, and I do want to see it continue on and expand," she said. "Because what this lifestyle gives people is so beautiful and so honest and so connected to nature and to themselves. And that's what we really need right now, is self-love and love for Mother Earth and, you know, all the loves."

Berish, right, strips down and hangs out with members of the Van Tan Naturist Club. (Nude To Me/Hot Docs)

As Berish and his colleague interviewed the folks at Van Tan, they realized that to truly understand the naturalist perspective, they would have to take it to the next level. 

"We're excited to be able to share their story, and we knew that in order to do that, we were going to have to, you know, get naked as well," Berish said. "I reluctantly decided to jump in. And once I did, it was great."

The more time he spent in the buff, the more comfortable he felt in his own skin. There's no judgment at Van Tan, he said. No wandering eyes, either. Just comfort, freedom, and a whole lot of eye contact.

"It was all those things that Michele was talking about earlier. There is an energy and then there is a sense of vibration when you're just talking amongst other people in the nude in nature. There is a connection, soul to soul," he said.

Making the documentary also helped Berish get a sense of what his grandparents must have experienced all those years ago when Zella Berish left her fiancé behind to visit a nudist club in Quebec on a whim. 

Berish says his grandmother was always adventurous and care-free. "I know that there was only one Zella Berish. She was a very special person and a bon vivant," he said.

The first person she met at the club was Berish's grandfather Izzy, who welcomed her with a smile, a friendly hello and a couple of towels. 

Izzy and Zella Berish were passionately in love. (Hot Docs)

The pair fell "madly in love," she told Berish, and they remained in love for the rest their lives together. Izzy died before his grandson was born.

"I think my grandparents were almost like the original hipsters. In a sense, they were there to be radical and to rebel …and they were very comfortable in that environment. You know, before the punks and the beatniks and the hippies, there were the naturists," Berish said.

"People who are looking for naturism today, I don't think they're looking to be radical. I think they're looking for a place where they can be free. And I think kind of the common thread between my grandparents and what people are looking for in naturism now is they're looking for a place just to be completely free. And, you know, this is a perfect place for that."

Nude To Me will stream at Hot Docs between April 29 to May 9, and will be available on CBC Gem on May 7. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Daniel Berish and Michele Rauter produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. 

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