Canadian director Alan Zweig has made a career out of training his lens on bleak and bitter subjects – often in an autobiographical style. And though the Toronto-based filmmaker’s latest effort, Hurt, features his usual conversational tone as well as a troubled anti-hero, the 84-minute feature is the most conventional and cinematic documentary Zweig has made to date.
“The film looks completely different from my other films because on some levels it’s in a completely different genre even though it’s still a documentary,” the director tells realscreen.
Zweig – who picked up the Best Canadian Feature prize at TIFF in 2013 for When Jews Were Funny - once again returns to the festival with his seventh film, which had its world premiere on Monday (September 14) as part of the new, juried ‘Platform’ competition. Produced by Peter Gentile’s MDF Productions, it is the single Canadian film and only documentary to screen in the program, comprised of 12 films demonstrating a strong directorial vision by major international filmmakers.
Hurt chronicles one year in the life of Montreal-born Steve Fonyo, almost 30 years after his 1985 cross-Canada cancer run. Inspired by Canadian icon Terry Fox’s trek for cancer four years earlier, Fonyo – who lost a leg to bone cancer at age 12 – would set out from St. John’s, Newfoundland, on a 7,924 km (4,924 miles) marathon that ended 400 days later at the tip of the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, British Columbia.
The 14-month run would generate CAD$13 million (US$9.95 million) in donations for cancer research and catapult Fonyo overnight to the status of national hero. He would receive the Order of Canada that same year. The designation, however, would be revoked 25 years later in 2010 with Fonyo mired in years of legal troubles ranging from aggravated assault and fraud to larceny, and struggling with drug addiction.
“It was as if the Government of Canada was officially declaring him a bad person, and that was what got me thinking about him and how his life had gone in the last 30 years,” Zweig says. “Canada forgot about him because he kept living and he had problems. He wasn’t a feel-good story anymore and it was just easier to forget about him than to try and figure out what was happening to him.”
In fact, the only person to attend a party celebrating the 30th anniversary of his long-forgotten run was the police officer responsible for having previously arrested Fonyo and his ex-wife Lisa Greenwood on multiple occasions.
Although the doc only days ago bowed to a festival audience, executive producer Gentile has confirmed to realscreen that the team is already shooting a sequel documentary set to follow Fonyo on the recovery and rehabilitation process following a home invasion that resulted in his near-fatal stabbing. The sequel has been commissioned by Super Channel, but further details are still under wraps.
Reflecting on his filmmaking style, Zweig believes he’s capable of producing captivating films around the themes of introspection, negativity, loneliness and incarceration, but it’s the unearthing of gripping subject material that does not come easily to him. The director would spend countless hours watching films from other directors in astonishment and saying, “Wow, that’s a good idea. How come I can’t come up with these good ideas?”
“I think I made good films from those [past] subjects but it was almost like I was waiting for a more classic documentary subject to come along, and that’s a big thing that attracted me to this idea,” he explains.
The obvious route to capture the one-time cancer activist’s story was to take a biographical approach that detailed Fonyo’s meteoric rise to newsmaker of the year in 1985 and eventually his 30-year fall from grace. But instead, Zweig and Gentile decided to venture the road less traveled by revealing Fonyo’s present-day conflicts and personal struggles.
The filmmakers would journey to Vancouver on four occasions between March 2014 and February 2015, filming one week at a time. During that period, there were three arrests, two home invasions, two evictions, one stolen generator and one near-fatal stabbing.
“From the stories he told us from his past, this past year was not atypical or more dramatic,” says Zweig.
Gentile adds that the world Fonyo lives in in Surrey, British Columbia, is “a world of people on the edges,” whether it’s through involvement with petty crime or drugs. “You don’t see it that often, especially in Canada, so to see this guy who was once such a big star and important figure in that world allowed us to understand [Fonyo] differently.”
Zweig’s goal, he says, was not to redeem Fonyo as a national hero – unless he did so himself – but rather, film the circumstances that might evoke a strong sense of what he may have endured over the past 30 years.
“I just hoped we were lucky enough to be there for a few things that would help represent the way his life unfolds and I think we got pretty lucky,” Zweig says. “The things that happened to Steve [in the film] just suddenly happened, they just burst into play right in front of us.
“Watching him and how he navigates the instability of his life is the story of the film, and maybe the story of his life.”