A battered yet indefatigable optimism suffuses the work of Alan Zweig, the Toronto filmmaker who can, however reluctantly, count himself among those referred to in the titles of both I, Curmudgeon (2004) and Lovable (2007), two of his more overtly personal films. Optimism can be a shrewd way of resolving story, but it is also a genuine survival technique, a way to endure hard times. Near the end of 15 Reasons to Live, Zweig, in voice-over, concedes to the notion that happiness can be a choice. Big-hearted and relentlessly curious, one of Canada’s premiere group-portraitists relays in his new film 15 true stories of people making such choices, sometimes at enormous personal risk, sometimes by simply saying yes to an unlikely offer.
For Zweig, that offer came in the form of a creative provocation prompted by the premise of Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, a nonfiction book by his friend Ray Robertson, itemizing its author’s personal tactics for overcoming depression. “What struck me,” explains Zweig, “was the idea that a list of reasons would require a list of stories, and at that moment, that kind of storytelling challenge was especially appealing.”
Some of the stories Zweig found are truly extraordinary. The film hits the ground running with its inaugural reason to live: LOVE. Zweig pays tribute to love’s seemingly infinite malleability by telling the story of Jean Béliveau , whose response to a midlife crisis was to start walking—alone—all over the world, and of Luce Archambault, Béliveau’s wife, who gave her blessing in exchange for the understanding that the couple would reunite once a year in whatever locale Béliveau found himself. Some stories seem drawn from myth. Peter Reidel, whose story Zweig uses to represent the BODY, was a rage-filled ex-con who moved to Toronto without knowing a soul. He found solace in wading into rivers and streams and constructing large, enigmatic rock formations with his bare hands. Other stories are more familiar, yet no less moving. To illustrate the life-affirming power of WORK, Zweig profiles Mark Sun, who abandoned a lucrative yet spirit-crushing career as an import-export trader in China, moved to Canada, and, seemingly by chance, embarked on a new career as a massage therapist, which imbued his life with a desperately needed sense of meaning.
From the compulsive collectors surveyed in Vinyl (2000) to the varied individuals struggling with life after incarceration in A Hard Name (2009), Zweig’s films are distinguished by their emphasis on the hidden connective tissue that binds groups of people together. “I’ve thought of all my films as collective stories,” says Zweig. “When you weave together bits of interviews, as I did in all my previous films, you automatically create connections. In this one, I knew I wasn’t going to weave the stories, but, of course, I hoped that connections of some kind would be created nonetheless, that a collective story would emerge, however indiscernible.”
Perhaps the key ingredient in seeing through such a project was the same one underlying every one of its stories: faith. “I’ve always followed my gut,” Zweig claims. “For a long time while making 15 Reasons, I thought my gut had finally steered me the wrong way. But as I look at the finished film, I’m feeling like I got away with it—and that I owe my gut an apology.”
Click here for POV’s full list of Hot Docs previews.
Sat, Apr 27 6:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Mon, Apr 29 1:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, May 5 1:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3