Intimate lessons on Vancouver's streets

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Directors Nettie Wild and Murray Siple journeyed from the back alleys and cheap hotels of Vancouver to the steep roads and bush camps of the North Shore, and they brought home intimate stories about life on the street.

Wild’s Bevel Up: Drugs, Users and Outreach Nursing explores issues around the harm-reduction approach to drug addiction through the eyes of street nurses as they build ties with street-entrenched people, mostly in the Downtown Eastside. In Carts of Darkness, Siple follows a small group of North Shore binners making a living while pursuing an existence that is free of the burdens of nine-to-fivers. (Both documentaries are screening this month at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre, 1181 Seymour Street.)

Bevel Up is a 45-minute film at the heart of a four-and-a-half-hour interactive DVD that features separate menus on a range of professional, ethical, and legal issues related to the delivery of health care to drug users.

The documentary was the brainchild of Caroline Brunt, a street nurse with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, who can be seen in the film packing more than just assorted medicines and dressing for wounds before heading out for work: she also throws into her nurse’s kit syringes and mouthpieces for crack pipes.

The syringes are for needle exchange, to reduce the risk of spreading HIV and hepatitis among intravenous drug addicts, Brunt explained to the Georgia Straight at a recent media screening of Bevel Up. She also gives out pieces of surgical tubing that can be attached to the end of a crack pipe so crack smokers don’t have to share mouthpieces.

Brunt had been a nurse for 15 years before she chose to work among drug users, whom she had previously thought of as “scum of the earth” who didn’t deserve care. It was a mindset that somehow kept nagging at the core of her professional values as a health-care worker.

“I kind of figured that I was judgmental,” Brunt said, recalling her examination of why she didn’t feel fulfilled. “I wasn’t happy with myself for feeling that way.”

The 47-year-old Brunt has been a street nurse since 1998, working mostly with injection-drug users and sex-trade workers. Like everyone else, these people “have a past, a present, and a future”, Brunt said. She also explained that one of the most valuable lessons she learned from working with people on the street is the importance of listening to their stories.

This isn’t the first time that Nettie Wild has taken a look at addiction. Her credits include FIX: The Story of an Addicted City, a 2002 documentary that explored the struggles in Vancouver regarding ways of dealing with this issue.

Wild recalled to the Straight that when Brunt and her fellow nurses approached her with the concept for Bevel Up, they asked her to create a work that would allow health-care professionals to figure out what stands in the way of delivering service to people regardless of who they are.

“If you are not able to approach somebody who is an active drug user without stumbling over your attitude about that, the attitude is what reads,” Wild said. “If that person feels dismissed, you’ll lose them. You won’t be able to establish the relationship that’s needed to provide better health care.”

In one scene, Brunt teaches a man, whose father and grandfather were also addicts, how to properly inject. The bevel—the slope at the top of the needle—has to be facing up, in order not to damage the vein and create an abscess on the skin, Wild explained.

“The thing that’s interesting here is that it’s a nurse coaching somebody who is about to inject heroin how to do it in a healthier way,” Wild said. “For some people, they would think that was very contradictory.”

The National Film Board of Canada coproduced Bevel Up with the BCCDC’s Street Nurse Program and Canada Wild Productions. Some funding came from the B.C. Nurses’ Union and Health Canada. Screenings are at 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (April 26 and 27).

Bevel Up’s public release couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The June 30 extension of the exemption from drug laws granted by the federal government to Vancouver’s supervised injection site is fast approaching, and debates regarding harm reduction are expected to come to the forefront in the coming weeks.

In Carts of Darkness, Siple’s subjects get their high careening down the sloping roads of North Vancouver in shopping carts filled with cans and bottles, as they race to the recycling depot.

Some of them, according to Siple, rode shopping carts as both a sport and a way of getting around the affluent suburb when they were younger because they never had bicycles or skateboards.

“When they became adults, unfortunately, they became alcoholics, lost their jobs and homes, and then still use the shopping carts to collect bottles,” Siple told the Straight. “So they turned their sport into their jobs.”

Carts of Darkness is Siple’s first feature-length documentary since a 1996 car accident left him a quadriplegic. An Emily Carr Institute–trained filmmaker, Siple used to make extreme-sports videos. He was also once an avid skateboarder and snowboarder.

According to Siple, the making of this documentary was also about rediscovering himself. He seeks not only to overcome his own doubts about his capability to return to filmmaking from the confines of his disability but also perhaps to find a way back to his old world by entering that of the binners of the North Shore. It should come as no surprise that some clips from his previous works appear in Carts.

“The film is a combination of myself and these characters who are, presumably, homeless and have their issues,” he said. “But at the same time, we all get a thrill out of extreme sports and the act of having fun being an outsider.”

In one scene, the main figure, named Big Al, notes with pride that he doesn’t own anything in the world and therefore he’s free. It’s a sense that Siple came to appreciate while making the documentary.

“There’s a freedom in their lifestyle that I was jealous of,” the 38-year-old Siple said. “They don’t have the commitments that—I’ll use the word—”˜regular’ people do. They don’t have bills, cellphones, and they don’t even have IDs.”

Another man in the film, named Fergie, says he prefers sleeping in the bush to staying in shelters, where his depression gets worse as he hears other people talk about their own issues. “Buddy, it ain’t easy being me,” Fergie tells the director in the film.

Siple said the binners were largely ignored until he chanced on them one evening while they were returning bottles. The recycling depot they frequented was located beside a disabled parking spot at a local grocery. “When they told me they rode shopping carts, I was amazed, and I realized that this may be the only place in the world that this could happen,” he said.

In the film’s narration, Siple says he became more at home in the world of the North Shore binners. Following the cart racers in his van as they reached speeds of 50 km/h and beyond, he noted: “It gave me a rush I haven’t felt in years.”

A National Film Board of Canada production, Carts of Darkness plays at 7:30 pm on Monday (April 28), 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday (April 29), and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (May 1).

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