This year’s Toronto International Film Festival changed the conversation by ushering in a new generation of auteurs with the Festival’s inaugural Platform sidebar, which boosts established filmmakers to the next tier of the canon with a competitive spotlight. The first Platform winner is none other than Toronto’s own Alan Zweig for his new documentary HURT, his brutally honest portrait of fallen Canadian hero Steve Fonyo. (Literally following in the footsteps of Terry Fox, Fonyo ran across Canada to raise awareness for cancer research and went on to receive the Order of Canada before it was later stripped from him when his image as a cancer survivor and athlete changed following drug addictions and run-ins with the law.) The Platform win for HURT gave TIFF its best underdog tale since Slumdog Millionaire avoided the bargain bin by winning the People’s Choice Award and going on to triumphs at the Oscars. The Platform boost is a major honour for Zweig, whose film was both the only Canadian/North American selection in Platform, as well as the only documentary in the sidebar. As the lone film selected to stand for the country with the largest representation at the Festival, as well as for an entire mode of filmmaking, HURT’s place in Platform says a lot. It’s a move forward for Zweig and Fonyo alike.
Zweig, speaking in an interview with POV during the Festival, recalled that Fonyo’s fall from grace motivated him to pursue a film. “I heard he was having trouble,” Zweig said, speaking of the time when the Canadian government stripped Fonyo of the Order of Canada, “and suddenly the government that once called him hero had officially declared him a loser. Something about that embarrassment felt like a big moment to me.” HURT rejects any and all of the inspirational moments that one might find in a traditional underdog narrative. It’s not about redemption or catharsis; rather, it’s a sober, no holds-barred portrait of what happens when a nation neglects its heroes.
HURT sees Zweig visit Fonyo as he struggles at rock bottom, balancing on the edge of homelessness and getting into fights with everyone from his ex-wife to his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. The film is painfully unflinching as the camera watches Fonyo curse at and tussle with various people he encounters, while implications of substance abuse happen off-screen. These aren’t elements one usually finds in a tale that plays in multiplexes across the country, which makes HURT a shrewd choice to be the non-fiction anomaly in Platform. “I think one of the reasons it might be more suited to documentary,” Zweig says, “is because the stuff [Steve] gets up to is criminal, but he’s not like Al Capone. It’s almost inconsequential, although it’s a crime.” Simply put, the realism of the film, the commonness of Fonyo’s post-heroic fall, is too true for comfort.
The chill of Fonyo’s petty and seemingly inconsequential behaviour aligns with previous films in Zweig’s body of work, which largely favours humble, unassuming subjects. His naked flaws make this story compellingly authentic. “It seems almost too obvious to point out that some stories, when you see them in fiction, you say, ‘Oh that was bad, but I don’t feel really anything,’” Zweig says. “But if it has that disclaimer, ‘Based on a true story,’ it gives it that extra pull. And that was never more clear for me than when I made A Hard Name [which won the Genie for Best Documentary Feature] and I had ex-cons saying things that I’ve heard people say in prison movies. But when they said it in my film, it shook me to the bone. So what attracted me to Steve’s story was that it had a lot of qualities of fiction [but was real].”
Making Fonyo’s story as a drama would also demand the tricky task of finding the right actor to play the part. Fonyo, when asked by POV who could best play him in a drama of his life, simply smiles and shakes his head. “I don’t think there is a person,’ he laughs, “I don’t think you could act it.” (His girlfriend, Lisa Marie, jokes that Matthew McConaughey is the man for the job.) However, Fonyo’s ability to admit the difficulty that his persona presents for an actor conveys a step in the right direction towards self awareness. His erratic behaviour and uncomfortable mood swings are simply too dramatic for anyone to mimic, but the frankness of _HURT_’s portrait of Fonyo invites a great deal of empathy.
HURT brings another recurring trait one sees in Zweig’s films to the Platform section as the filmmaker skillfully allows himself to be a part of the action that occurs on screen. HURT begins as straightforward observation as Zweig lets the first visit with Steve largely play out as observational cinema. However, as Fonyo’s behaviour becomes more erratic and disorderly, Zweig’s presence becomes a secondary voice in the film. As he drives with Fonyo, he asks about the prized car that he is slowly restoring at home. Zweig gradually gets him to open up about his shortcomings and ultimately realise how much he needs help.
Zweig admits that the presence of a filmmaker is often (stupidly) perceived as taboo. “Even having your questions in the film was taboo,” recalls Zweig, “so you had that thing where people would say, ‘What did you have for breakfast today?’ ‘Eggs’” But you can’t say, ‘Eggs,’ you have to say ‘I had eggs for breakfast’.” Fonyo generally needs a bit of coaxing to provide fuller answers and he often responds better when the interviewer is a friend beside him, rather than a detached voice speaking from behind a camera. By choosing not to remove himself from the film, the director inspired a more authentic version of his subject.
Zweig admits that stepping into the frame poses a dilemma for filmmakers, but he says that one can contain the risk if one knows how to tread the line between filmmaker and subject. “That’s become a technique to save movies,” Zweig says on filmmakers who insert themselves within their own films, “because the filmmaker having their own parallel story as a subplot is a structuring tool where, if you don’t know how to structure a story otherwise, is an easy one. On that level, I do feel like, ‘oh man, what have I wrought here?’ because I have seen so many films where the filmmaker opens by saying I’m a filmmaker…’”
Zweig, however, thinks that an openness to documentary form is emerging. “I think Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield had something to do with breaking the taboo, and even in Canada, I think that I had something to do with breaking that taboo, but it was so broken that people do it for no other reason than to just do it.” Festivalgoers who revisit Zweig’s films will see that the filmmaker’s presence in the films largely works to their benefit, particularly in his two most recent features. 15 Reasons to Live, for example, gives Zweig the final word (or reason) in the film as the fifteenth chapter of this anthology offers a personal story that brings the film to its extraordinary catharsis. InWhen Jews Were Funny, which won the prize for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF 2013, Zweig’s audible interview questions and banter with the comic interviewees adds a layer of self-deprecating humour to the conversation that furthers the film’s thesis. HURT therefore displays the most sophisticated extension of a Zweig trait as it boosts him to a new level in the festival circuit.
HURT simply wouldn’t work, though, without Zweig’s presence to reassure the viewer that Steve deserves their sympathy. Without the filmmaker’s voice of reason speaking within the film, HURT might simply prove too difficult and too frank for comfort if Zweig were to allow Steve to run wild with his behaviour. “When I started making documentaries,” Zweig says, “I realised, ‘These people really believe that verité is the highest form of art and that talking heads is the lowest form,’ which I was working in myself.”
“When I watch verité,” Zweig continues, “the guy’s just saying this and this and this and this, and I’m like, ‘Hey, say something to him. Like, on behalf of the audience, please mediate this a little for me.’” Zweig intervenes at least twice in the film and helps contain a situation that could easily have spiralled out of control.
The film sees Zweig give Fonyo the push he needs to pursue treatment. Fonyo admits that his life might not be on the same course that it is today if it not for the film. “I don’t know,” Fonyo hesitates, when asked if his life would have improved without the film. “Probably not. Everything happens for a reason, I believe.” By breaking a perceived taboo in documentary, HURT leads the film to a satisfying ending as Fonyo takes the first step towards treatment. By choosing to step away from traditional documentary convention, Zweig’s engagement with his subject, and his subject’s own trust in the him, lets the film function as more than just a work of art.
There’s a nice symmetry to Fonyo’s underdog status and Zweig’s own, which makes HURT an especially fine selection for putting Zweig in the spotlight. “The strange thing for me is… it’s almost not in my interest to admit this, but 99% or 100% of my success is in Canada, and 90% of that is in Toronto,” says Zweig. “I don’t know why my films have not travelled. I tend to think that if you have ten thousand fans in Toronto, then you probably have ten thousand fans in Chicago or St. Louis, etc, but they haven’t had a chance to see my films.” It’s certainly true that despite winning some of the highest honours that a documentarian can receive, Zweig’s success has previously been largely contained to Toronto, which boasts two of the most doc-friendly festivals in the world, TIFF and Hot Docs.
So, if Zweig’s films struggle to reach an audience outside Canada, let alone Toronto, then why make a movie about the relatively obscure Fonyo, compared to a national icon like Terry Fox? “‘Because that would be boring,” Zweig adds with a laugh. “The idea of bringing Steve’s story to Canadians was, I feel, a side benefit to making the film.” In addition to bringing a faded national hero back into the spotlight, which HURT is undeniably doing, the film shows how flawed and complex characters, real or fictional, are often the ones who engage audiences the most.
Fonyo doesn’t look back, but instead looks forward as he hopes that his next film with Zweig, Unbroken, adds to his story. “It shows that life is getting better,” he says and notes that audiences will find the follow-up documentary showing a Fonyo who is less chaotic and more stable. Fonyo hopes that audiences affected by his tale and moved by his fall will see it as a learning experience. ’Just learn from it,” he says, looking towards his next chapter with Zweig. “We all want to get better. All you can do is move forward.”