***** out of *****
Hurt, the latest film by the acclaimed, award-winning Canadian filmmaker Alan Zweig (When Jews Were Funny) has its masterpiece status guaranteed – not simply for its selection in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s all-new 40th anniversary Platform competition (named after Jia Zhang-ke’s 1998 epic); not only because it was an exclusive selection chosen from hundreds of movies in a showcase devoted to shining a light upon 12 international feature films made by exceptional filmmakers doing bold, original work; and most certainly not because it was the only Canadian film in competition, which was then subsequently awarded the Grand Prize by a jury that included Claire Denis, Agnieszka Holland and Jia Zhang-ke. These might normally be considered reasons enough for the picture to attain a lofty status, but the real rationale behind such a proclamation is that Hurt is a film of such greatness that it can’t help but live eternally as one of the most original, compelling and heartbreaking films of the new millennium.
Over one non-stop year between 1984 and 1985, 18-year-old cancer-survivor Steve Fonyo ran 8000 km across Canada with a prosthetic leg. Though his handlers and medical doctors urged him to take a break from running during the blisteringly cold -40 degree weather on the bald, open prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, he refused. He did not want to slow the momentum of reaching his goal. Raising $14 million for cancer research, he received his country’s highest distinction, the Order of Canada.
Fonyo was constantly dogged, however, with unfounded accusations of being a copycat opportunist. A few years earlier, Terry Fox, a young man similarly afflicted, set out on a similar run. Alas, he never finished, dying en-route across Canada in Thunder Bay. His death was exploited by the various Canadian cancer societies, and Fonyo was all but ignored until he passed Fox’s dropping point and, in fact, began raising serious coin for cancer research. Fonyo, a sweet-faced, honest kid, became a hero to all regular folk across the country. He was no longer in the shadow of a previous ‘hero’ and the bureaucrats and administrators of all the high falutin’ charities had to acknowledge his feat of greatness.
Greatness, however, can be fleeting.
After suffering for three decades from abject poverty and various addictions while living within the dark underbelly of the criminal class, Steve Fonyo, this Canadian Hero, was transformed into a pariah by pencil pushers in the nation’s capitol and turfed from the Order of Canada. If he’d been suffering from a disease like cancer, this would have been unthinkable. Because he suffered from the diseases of alcoholism and addiction to crack and other drugs, he was fair game for humiliation by Canada’s fascist Conservative government.
Charting one year in Fonyo’s life, Alan Zweig pulls off a miracle. This stunning documentary (the only one selected for the Platform competition) is as narratively searing and artistically compelling as the grim and gritty 70s cinematic forays into crime, punishment and atonement, like Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Zweig, along with his editor Robert Swartz, cranks up the drama, careening us dangerously and deeply into the horror-ridden life of a hero.
We follow Fonyo’s loving relationship with a wife who was with him through his darkest hours, which included living homeless on the mean streets of Vancouver’s Hastings Street, the very locale in which Canada’s most notorious serial killer Robert Pickton, the farmer who kidnapped what might be hundreds of street women, addicts and prostitutes, then abused, tortured, murdered and subsequently fed them to his pigs. We get sickening first-hand accounts from Fonyo and his wife about what it was like to live on the streets, surrounded by pushers, pimps and rapists.
Zweig captures what might well be Fonyo’s ultimate annus horribilis, including violent altercations with his wife when he drops her for a younger girlfriend; a move to the most dangerous, crime-ridden ghetto of Surrey, B.C.; more violence with the sleazy, drug-addicted ex-boyfriend of his new girlfriend; and a bitter journey to his sweet, Hungarian mother’s suburban home to look over all the stored items of his year as a hero.
It is the very notion of heroism that is at the root of Fonyo’s massive downfall. People want their heroes to be shining examples of modesty, grace and success. What happens, though, when our heroes hit rock bottom?
The very process of filmmaking is what creates an indelible portrait of a fallen hero. Even more astonishing is how Zweig, his voice frequently heard off-camera with probing questions and conversation, gradually becomes a trusted confidante/confessor to this decimated idol of heroism, and a friend whose growing bond is what adds a brave and complex layer to the film.
Zweig’s intervention as both artist and humanitarian offers the promise of healing and redemption to Fonyo. A deus ex machina sees Zweig bringing in one of the world’s foremost authorities on addiction, the brilliant counselor, author and teacher, Gabor Mate. With the cameras rolling, with Mate’s assistance (and by extension, Zweig’s), Fonyo, for the first time in his 50 years on earth, looks deeply into a mirror of truth. We weep with him and finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Finally, we feel this tragic figure will find peace and that we’ll be rewarded with a happy ending. Remember though, that the film shares a great number of similarities with American cinema’s existentialist male angst movies of the 70s – tough minded ambiguity. Sadly, the film leaves us with yet another deus ex machina out of left field. There’s nothing happy about it at all.
Alan Zweig’s Hurt cold-cocks you as frequently as it wrenches tears.
Watch the trailer: