Alan Zweig chooses his words very carefully when he discusses Hurt. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking—Zweig's doc screens as part of Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival on Saturday (January 16) at the Cinematheque—but it’s thornier than hell, and shrouded in ethical questions. What begins as a portrait of Steve Fonyo becomes a study in cause and effect, or quantum documentary entanglement, with the observer influencing the observed to such a degree that there’s something like an intervention in the film’s final quarter, when, with his life hopelessly out of control, Zweig and his team introduce the beleaguered “fallen hero” (Canada’s words) to addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté.
Shortly after, on the very last day of shooting, Zweig and his team received a phone call informing them that Fonyo was in an induced coma after being stabbed and beaten almost to death in a targeted home invasion. Awful, but grimly inevitable given what we’ve seen, and unsettling since it might have been avoided with more intervention.
“I’ve never made a film before this where it mattered, what happened to the character,” says Zweig, speaking to the Straight from his home in Toronto. “I’d made films where it was, like: I’m making a film about the band you were in, and that already happened, and all I gotta do is get good interviews from you and the people in the band, and now I’ll tell the story. But with Steve, if stuff didn’t happen, I didn’t have a film.”
Fonyo’s “stuff” turned out to be more than anyone bargained for, but let’s recap a little. In 1984, having survived bone cancer and a leg amputation, the 19-year-old Fonyo achieved what Terry Fox couldn’t when he ran across Canada, raising over $14 million for cancer research. And then his life fell apart and Fonyo spent the next 30 years battling addiction, the cops, his own demons, and the snowballing contempt of an entire nation. When Zweig catches up with him, Fonyo is living in one of the blackest holes of Whalley and still simmering over the government’s decision in 2009 to revoke the Order of Canada he was given in 1985.
It was that decision that initially piqued the interest of Zweig, whose previous films included obliquely sensitive portraits of record collectors and ex-cons. He’s obviously a little anguished about such a painfully public wound being administered from such great heights.
“The government of Canada officially recognized you as a hero, and now the government of Canada officially recognizes you as a fuck-up,” he says, a little acidly, further musing that perhaps Ottawa oughta start handing out “the Disorder of Canada” instead.
“I understand why the terms of the Order of Canada might have led them to rescinding it,” he continues. “It’s not like they had no grounds to do it. But I would just say, grounds or no grounds, they didn’t have to do it. Steve might be asking a lot for them to help him, but then it’s sort of like, dude, not only are we not gonna help you, we’re gonna kick you a little.”
Given that the Order, of late, has been cancelled for others including Garth Drabinsky (for fraud and forgery) and Conrad Black (for being Thurston Howell III), Zweig also wonders if it shouldn’t be handed out posthumously instead so nobody has the chance to fuck it up. And he notes that “maybe it’s not the same when you take it away from Steve as it is when you take it away from Conrad Black, cause Conrad Black is still going to be rich and is still going to be comfortable.”
Steve Fonyo is anything but rich and he’s definitely not comfortable, and Hurt, in some ways, works as an indictment of Canada itself; a country riddled with the pockets of dysfunction that Fonyo tumbled into. The spectre of the Trailer Park Boys—cruel comedy for smug liberals, even if I admit that I love it—is never too far away in Zweig’s film. Beefing to the camera about his girlfriend smoking dope with her ex, who won't leave their house, Fonyo says without a hint of irony: “I’m the one she should be smoking dope with.” Shortly after, the situation explodes into an insane street brawl that’s maybe half a degree above bum-fight.
Not that Zweig exploits any of the madness that Fonyo so eagerly hands to him. If the title hasn’t clued you in—“I never had a harder time coming up with a title,” the filmmaker sighs—Hurt is a psychological portrait of a damaged man deeply in need of compassion. Asked how he now views the archival footage of Fonyo doggedly hop-skipping the 8,000 kilometers between the Atlantic and the Pacific, without any training, often in sub-zero temperatures, Zweig replies:
“Well, I see the determination. I didn’t know where that determination came from. My assumption when I started was that there was probably a reason for the determination. There was something behind it just as there’s something behind everything in his life.”
Is it fair to speculate that what’s behind it, really, is the same bullish, curdled, misdirected energy Fonyo now invests in stealing catalytic converters or provoking his girlfriend’s ex? Zweig thinks so.
“It probably isn’t the case that, when he was a hero, he had the personality of a hero, and when he went downhill, his personality changed,” he offers. “Whether you want to articulate it or not, I think the film gives you some idea of: how could that person who ran across Canada do this? Well, he was the same person, exactly. He didn’t change.”
And this is where Dr. Gabor Maté comes in. The filmmakers made three visits to Surrey starting in 2014, and Fonyo’s world had unravelled so badly on their final trip that Zweig elected to act on a family member’s suggestion and seek help for his subject. “I don’t have to put it in the film,” he reasoned. But he did put it in the film, since he captured something close to a miracle, or perhaps the first baby steps in the direction of the miraculous.
It doesn’t take Maté very long to expose Fonyo’s core, delivering a single line—no spoiler here, sorry—that changes the entire film and maybe Fonyo, too, who is obviously shaken by Maté’s insight. It’s certainly the first time the lights appear to really blink on. The impact behind the camera was similar.
“When I heard him say that, I was almost, like: ‘There’s the movie. That’s the story,’” says Zweig. “Part of me was thinking: I could have written that line for you.” Indeed, Maté seems to comprehend the entire arc of Fonyo’s life, tapping the source of all that “determination”, whether it’s the will to run across Canada on one leg or the subsequent, three decade-long drive to nightmarishly implode.
Zweig is satisfied that Hurt has prompted “some new sympathy and support” for Fonyo, whom he likes and obviously cares about. He also concedes that it’s “not clear at the moment” if the man will capitalize on the opportunities mustered by the film. A planned sequel, Unbroken, remains in limbo as long as Fonyo—now suffering with brain damage on top of everything else—resists the treatments he needs.
“Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom—and getting beaten almost to death, maybe that is rock bottom—but he hasn’t let himself see the connection between that and how he was living his life,” Zweig says, adding in a final, empathic, carefully worded estimation: “He’s interpreting it more… randomly than you or I might.”