A Hard Name

5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: May 1, 2011
Reviewed at the 2011 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Peering at “life through a window of pain”

Imagine being 11 months old and already written up in the press: Cutest baby photo? Prodigy in progress? No—none of that. How about being discovered—left by your parents—in an abandoned rooming house?

What must it have been like—at the tender age of four; the outcome of another broken home—when starting a life of servitude, sexual abuse and self-guilt in the horrific halls of Mount Cashel Orphanage (St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador)?

Who would ever forget brotherly love morphing into full penetration and feeling the shame of not finding the relief of suicide like your older sister had? Or taking it up the rear at the hands of your dad and his buds?

As these formerly innocent lives mature and grow into adulthood, is it any wonder that they try to banish their ever-present demons using the weapons of booze, drugs and intimidation?

Having been largely ignored by civilized society, should anyone be surprised that a life of crime is frequently embraced? Robbing, pimping, revenge-taking drive these lost souls as surely for the quick cash as the heady feeling of power when controlling others (just as they had been controlled), striking fear into the hearts of those who dared get in their way.

Of course, sooner or later, these troubled criminals are caught, judged and hidden away from decent folk. Once “inside,” these men and women soon adapt—looking tougher and harder than they feel in order to scare off would-be attackers/molesters from amongst their incarcerated peers and some of their minders. (How chillingly curious that these “stare down” faces are so at one with the equally disturbed youth seeking solace and purpose through bloody victories in the increasingly popular “sport” of Mixed Martial Arts—cross-reference below.)

As he said during the Q&A following the first screening for the retrospective of his works (Hot Docs 2011), filmmaker Alan Zweig had not expected every story of the eight, randomly selected subjects from his study of finally “free” inmates to be littered with so much sexual abuse. Fortunately, he ignored his narrative “voice” (which worried that the point of the film would be missed as the revelations of touching, groping, unwanted intercourse and the ensuing nightmares mounted up) and let the sordid details remain intact. (During this screening, a half-dozen patrons headed for the exits: in revulsion or unnerved by rekindled memories—on both sides of the heartless acts—of their own?)

Taken as a whole, Zweig need never fear that his intention was lost. Clearly he has gained the trust and confidence of this truly miserable troupe. They are no angels—doing violence to others is just as common as their own sorry pasts. Pity never rears its saccharine head.

Seen in isolation, who would have guessed that singer-songwriter Michael Walsh (whose gritty charts new and old are the perfect complement to David Wall’s clean, clear chamber-informed score) could readily administer a savage beating?

What does surface to the non-big-C conservatives (expanding Canada’s penal institutions touted as the best prescription for dealing with “you people” of the nastiest kind) is anger.

Anger with the system, the parents, law enforcement, the Church, plea bargain negotiators, drug dealers, alcohol peddlers—well, just about everyone.

It’s breaking the cycle of children losing self-esteem at the hands of “responsible” adults that will—finally—see our prisons more populated with the likes of Bernie Madoff than those whose self-respect—not merely cash—have been stolen.

Are the numbers of the stewards of orphanages and homes for wayward youth, over-friendly coaches and “favourite” uncles engaged in physical/psychological abuse on the wane thanks to the courage of their victims’ anguished testimony? Or do we need to—somehow—lose an entire generation, then redefine family love so that it is universally based on caring and nurturing rather than bullying power.

Zweig’s thesis could also form the basis of a further documentary as to how the same cycle of fear/retribution/despair is at the root of armed combats (not the least of which involve child soldiers—cross reference below).

Little wonder indigenous Canadian Keith identifies so strongly with the buffalo on display in Toronto’s High Park Zoo—both beasts and man know all too well what it means to be caged. JWR

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Director - Alan Zweig
Cinematographer - Alan Zweig
Editor - Randy Zimmer
Original Music - David Wall
Songs - Michael Walsh
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purchase information, production sponsors:
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Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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