A Hard Name is rough, sparse and full of talking heads, but despite, or in many instances because, of all this it is an incredibly compelling watch.
Alan Zweig’s documentary (recently nominated for a Genie) tells the important story of a collection of ex-convicts who speak candidly about trying to stay out of jail and what brought them to a life of crime in the first place. Told completely through one on one interviews with five men and two women who spent the majority of their lives in and out of jail, the film is not the uplifting tale of people who have turned their lives around. Rather, it allows its subjects to tell the stark truth of how hard it is to survive in jail and how much harder it can be to survive once released.
Zweig is clearly sympathetic to his cast of characters. His style of filmmaking is more conversational than constructed, and while at times it seems his banter from behind the camera may become too intrusive, it actually proves to enrich the film as he honestly exposes the connection he builds between himself and his subjects.
While the subjects, who have committed crimes spanning from bank robberies to drug deals to assaults, are presented as sympathetic, no one here tries to justify what they’ve done. Rather, each explains the painful stories of how crime became a part of their lives. One man was abandoned by his family as a teenager when they literally moved away leaving him with nothing; another grew up with a father who constantly brought home men to have sex with him, while another was both abandoned by his mother and then repeatedly molested by his guardians at the Mount Cashel orphanage in St John’s, Newfoundland, (which gained notoriety when allegations of sexual abuse from as many as 300 residents came to light in the 1980s and 1990s. The orphanage itself was closed in 1990).
Aside from telling their deeply saddening back stories, Zweig asks each subject to explain what it was like in jail, talking about the dynamic between prisoners and survival techniques (which include never eyeballing anyone, ratting anyone out or borrowing anything off another inmate). While some of his subjects are determined to maintain their freedom – they recall how going to a mall and being around people for the first time in years was liberating or how being able to get a call from one’s children is more important than making tons of money as a criminal – others concede that life would be easier if they were back in jail because they don’t know how to keep going on the outside.
A Hard Name doesn’t carry any big message. It just gives us a glimpse into what could happen to anyone if their life took a different path.