The story of Steve Fonyo, depending on what time period you’re looking at, is both humbling and horrifying, the tale of a man struggling with the burden of history and the demons that continue to haunt him. From Nationally celebrated hero stripped of his laurels by a fickle government, Alan Zweig’s film manages to at once provide a platform for Fonyo’s own weaknesses, but also our collective culpability, how as a Nation we can chew up our heroes and drop them when they need something from us.
Zweig’s films are always personal, often with himself as the subject of investigation. In Fonyo, however, Zweig seems to have found an external subject that manifests many of the challenges and neuroses that the documentarian has been fascinated with for years. It’s this mix of Zweig’s deft filmmaking with a remarkable, cinematically interesting subject that elevates the film to being not only his best, but one of the best and most powerful films of the year.
I spoke with Zweig via phone from his home in Toronto, and our long ranging conversation was almost as affecting as his work. We spoke of finding Fonyo as a subject, the current state of documentary, what it means to make non-fiction cinema and how that is set apart from “mere” journalism.
What prompted you to first get in touch with Steve?
A friend of mine wrote me a message and said Fonyo had the Order of Canada taken away. People had suggested many things to me [to use as the subject of my next film], but that one struck me.
I think that the Order of Canada thing was just kind of like a beat, a story beat. I don’t really know how else to say it. It’s one thing for your life to spiral downhill, it’s another thing for the government of a country to officially declare that you’re a ne’er do well, or that you’ve lived a loser’s life.
I mentioned it to Peter Gentile, who ended up producing it, probably 5 years ago. We ran into each other at TIFF two years ago, and he said, do you still want to do that one? When I was going to Vancouver for VIFF Peter came with me, and we went to meet Steve. That’s pretty well 2 years ago this October. Steve was talkative enough and enough of a storyteller that it would work, and that was the beginning.
Fonyo seems like a perfect blend between somebody who’d be very reticent to tell his story, but also somebody who clearly wants to tell his story on his own terms, is that one thing that you saw from your interaction with him and had he known about you as a filmmaker ahead of time?
No, he didn’t know about me as a filmmaker. I doubt he knows about any filmmakers.
Interestingly, he has been approached or even had films started in at least 3 cases before we came along. There’s one sort of trailer that you can find online – some people went and interviewed him for 3 or 4 hours in a hotel room.
I think he was accustomed to the idea that eventually someone was going to make a film about him. I think he considered it inevitable.
It’s really hard for me to talk about what he expected to happen. If he could have maintained some kind of guarded version of his life, that he would mete out, if he could have held on to things and tried to put his best foot forward, he would have. I think ultimately we just spent too much time together, developed too much trust.
There was a point where I realized that he was really trying hard not to smoke cigarettes on camera. That was one thing that would look bad. So he did here and there, so he had a thought about what he should or shouldn’t do or talk about on camera. I don’t know if he had any rules about it, I don’t know that there were any that he didn’t end up breaking.
Were there overt expectations that he had about his participation in the film?
That’s hard to say. I think that he thought that any film about him would bring him back into the public eye and probably elicit positive attention rather than the negative attention he’d been getting for the last 30 years.
On films of this nature, a general audience looks to 2 things: They wonder how you as a filmmaker maintain any kind of objectivity when you see his obvious suffering and obvious challenges, and then you wonder whether or not if that objectivity was ever broken, what contributions you made to him in certain situations, what the camera being there did to exacerbate or escalate the situation. All documentaries deal with that, but when it’s something as volatile as this, it seems even more heightened.
So, did I have objectivity? I don’t know how to answer that. I had an opinion about him, and I think that I was a filmmaker trying to make the best film I could. I was somebody who hung out with him and so became kind of a friend. Then there was the sympathy I brought to him and his situation which probably inspired my film in the first place.
I tried to be objective in what I put in the film. I didn’t try to protect him or make him look better than he is. So in that sense, I guess, I don’t know if true objectivity is possible, but I didn’t have a bone to pick. I wasn’t trying to be negative with him, or mean, or cruel or make him look worse, and I don’t believe I tried to make him look better either.
If you watch the film, there’s some things that obviously we set up. The visit to the counsellor was something we brought to him and that was very clearly indicated in the film, and also when we went to Fonyo beach to kind of visit the place he ended his run. That was a contrivance and it backfired in I thought a pretty interesting way. Those are the only two things that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t making a film. What wouldn’t have happened within the scenes if there weren’t a camera there, I don’t know, I never know.
You see a man clearly suffering financially and mentally. And it’s clear that as a filmmaker, you go out of your way to help him with his mental health, you bring him to this counselor. But off camera, are you ever paying his rent for his participation?
No. We did pay him a little bit of money here and there for his time. He spent 4 weeks with us exclusively, and we paid him an honorarium. Sometimes that came in the form of lunch, and sometimes that came in the form of if we took him overnight somewhere, we might put him in a hotel with the crew. Rather than give him cash, we tried to spend the money on things that he needed. If we had been paying his rent, he would have never ended up homeless.
When you heard about the attack, how did that shape your production of the film?
For reasons that I may come to regret, I didn’t make it clear in the film what I will make clear to you, which is that he was attacked on the morning of our last day of production.
We were there, we were sleeping. We woke up early, very early Friday morning, to get some dawn shots, some beauty shots down at the ports and 8 o’clock. We were going to go pick him up, it was going to be our last day ever shooting with him, and that’s why the night before he’s saying I think you guys should come back, because we’re about to leave.
So at 9 o’clock the producer got a text from Steve’s niece about what happened. We went to the hospital, to see what we could see and to talk to Lisa Marie, and then we went to the house and we shot a few shots of what was going on at the house, which I figured would be probably the end of my film. I predicted at that moment probably this is more or less how we’ll end the film.
I assume, again on the outside, that you had two reactions, one as a human, and one as a filmmaker. Can you talk me through that moment, and tell me how you reacted both as a filmmaker and as a person?
Well, my first reaction as a filmmaker was oh jeez, we’re not going to get to do the pickup shots. It wasn’t like, that’s a good ending for my film, because I wasn’t absolutely sure that it was. Even though it really did happen, but I still felt like it’s an ending that has to be earned.
I had a feeling that that last week was screwed up enough that that ending would work, but I wasn’t sure.
As a human being, we didn’t know when we left whether he was going to live.
When you’re shooting those reaction shots, you didn’t know if he was going to survive.
He was stabbed, that’s true, but he was beaten, he was punched in the head for 45 minutes and it felt to me like the people who did it were trying to kill him. If that was a warning, that was a pretty brutal warning. He was in an induced coma to prevent further brain swelling.
You can’t quite let yourself be oh jeez, what a great ending for my film, when you don’t know if he’s going to live or die. I was not unaware that it might be a good ending for the film, but I didn’t think the film needed it, and I wasn’t sure that it would be a good ending.
The truth is that had I jumped for joy, would I really tell you that now? Would I make myself seem that cold? But I didn’t. I didn’t jump for joy. At first, I was just kind of shocked and concerned and wondering what we were going to do and feeling weird that we were leaving, but I shot what I could and hoped that we could use it in the film.
Here’s what I’m getting at: it’s entirely possible that another film would have not ended where it does and continued after his survival to follow what has happened subsequently. His story does not end or begin with the violence, it’s simply another path that he’s going, but some people would have avoided a lot of the backstory and simply concentrated on say a rehabilitation story, or some sort of sympathy story, but that’s not the film you made.
There’s a few answers to that. Let’s use the word redemption. It became clear fairly soon that there was not going to be any redemption in this. It’s funny, when you tell your friends, oh no, my film’s not going to have any redemption, if they’re cool, they say, oh good, because I’m so tired of films that have this inevitable redemption.
I never thought that there would be redemption if we spent a year with him, but I thought there might be. That wasn’t my goal, but it seemed possible, but it became clear pretty soon that there wouldn’t be. I thought the ending would be a little more open than it was – I think it is still open, even though it’s violent and dark, but it still is open.
The film could have ended before – I mean, I think that the last four things he says are: Everybody wants a happy ending, but it didn’t look like there was going to be one, and then he says, this last time you’ve come out is the worst time and I can’t do anything about it and he says I think you should come back and then he says because I don’t want people to think that this is Steve because it’s not.
I could have ended it right there.
The ending I used was like almost like a denouement that drives home something that is already in the movie pretty strongly.
It would have been easier on audiences for you to have ended 2 weeks later, you finding him coming out of the hospital
It would have had to be 2 months later.
Fine, a period later, I’ve gone back now and watched the news reports, he’s slurring his voice, looking for help, generating sympathy and simply had a black card with white writing simply saying to support Steve, call 1-800 whatever.
You know that type of movie.
Well, you know, that’s not a horrible idea, but I was really trying from the beginning not to make a movie where any of that stuff happened. Obviously I wasn’t thinking about that, but was thinking about how do I introduce his run, how do I talk about the past. The idea was to spend a year with the guy and try to figure out what his last 30 years have been like and try to be as in the moment as possible.
There’s a lot of things that people would do that would be perfectly legitimate, like start the film with 5 minutes of archival footage and make it clear you know who he is, lots of things that I just don’t want to do. It’s not my style to do it – I feel when you do that stuff, you tell people you’re making a certain kind of movie. What you’re saying sounds like journalism. A piece of paper with some information is not really a movie, it’s like a handout.
What do you see as the fundamental difference between documentary and journalism, specifically cinematic documentary filmmaking?
It’s funny, I used the word journalism dismissively and I shouldn’t. I was going to say I don’t think that journalism is an art form, but I can’t stand behind that statement.
It certainly doesn’t have an aesthetic intention.
This is a much longer conversation, but I feel like documentary filmmaking in general – not just through the fault if we can use that word of filmmakers, not just through the fault of curators and people who pay for them – but it’s just a general conspiracy that documentary filmmaking does not really need to be filmmaking.
I made a joke the other day that I think is the best joke I’ve ever made about the subject, which is, if I told you that Stevie Wonder was about to direct his first major motion picture, you would say, well, that’s ridiculous, or that must be, you must have read that in The Onion, you must have gotten that wrong. But if I say Stevie Wonder is about to direct his first documentary, most people would go oh, yeah, I’d like to see that!
Why? Because anybody can make a documentary. The bar is really low.
Take one of those people who tried to make a film about Steve – I saw the trailer they’d made and I thought, that might be perfectly good. They have experts, they have this and that, and it’s about him, it’s like telling, it’s a biography.
We didn’t do a biography. Maybe that’s the difference right there.
Nor did you do an advocacy piece, and it’s certainly not a hagiography. You don’t have a specific ideology that comes directly across in the filmmaking.
I don’t know what you mean.
Think of something like Blackfish. Or something like any of these documentaries that are coming out now that have a very specific, very unguarded point of view. You did not make a film about the tragedy of poverty full stop. It’s not like you have a bunch of talking heads saying how ridiculous this is or something like that. So your film is not a work of advocacy in an overt sense. It certainly has a point of view…
Right, but again, that these are all sort of get back to my little rant about filmmaking. A good filmmaker could make an advocacy film, and they do. I know people who have made environmental films and they’re good filmmakers and it’s an advocacy film and they did a good job. I mean, nobody’s making a film about the environment that’s pro pollution!
I just think that you wouldn’t even ask that question if it weren’t for all of the documentaries that have been made in the last 20 years that are kind of puff pieces or positive spins.
Take [Morgan Neville’s Academy award winning] 20 Feet from Stardom. Certainly, I don’t know who started that film but I’m sure their idea was, just from calling it that, here’s a story about a bunch of people who should have been stars. Really? Why? Why should they have been stars? If you want to make a film about people who should have been stars, you could be making that film for the rest of your life. I don’t even know what to say here – it’s like, you’re saying that I didn’t do a whole bunch of things that to me, people who aren’t really thinking about filmmaking would do.
I take your point, but think 20 FEET has a lot more going for it than you’re giving it credit for.
That may be.
What got you into making documentaries?
Again, I don’t want to throw my documentary colleagues under the bus because there are a number of whom that what I’m already talking about doesn’t apply to them. I’ll just say that when I was a younger person, watching movies and all that, those documentary filmmakers of yore, the Maysles or whatever, they were filmmakers. They were filmmakers who happened to choose to make documentaries.
I never saw a documentary in those days when I was just watching cool movies in art houses, made by somebody who’s never made a film, who had an axe to grind, or a bone to pick, or a subject that they that was important to them. I mean, maybe I did, but I didn’t know it.
I’m sure there are many exceptions to what I’m saying, like Barbara Kopple when she made her film about the miners [Harlan County U.S.A], was she not inherently making a film pro-union? But all I can say is, when I made Vinyl, it was just a coincidence.
I was a filmmaker, I got a grant, I was going to make a fiction film, I decided not to.
I bought a High 8 camera and I started shooting this thing that was a documentary more or less without any idea of what you should do. Are there some rules or conventions that I didn’t know about that now that I’m making one I should check out? After I made that there was this sort of moment where it was like, well, the very first thing you ever made that was successful was a documentary, maybe you could make another one. It would be a lot easier than going back to banging your head against the wall, which you were doing trying to make fiction films.
So I decided to make another one.
Then there was a certain point that then I started having consistent encounters with the documentary community where I started to realize, oh, these people have an actual set of beliefs which sometimes they’re sharing with me. Sometimes they’re sharing by telling me what I’m doing is wrong or goes against the conventions.
It was just kind of strange because I thought well, back in the other world I was in of just filmmakers, if you went against the conventions you were thoroughly and consistently celebrated 100%. In this world, it wasn’t so clear that people were celebrating. I and a few other filmmakers, we’ve had this conversation before, we enjoy having this conversation, bitching about all of the non-filmmaking that occurs in the documentary world.
That isn’t to say that then when I set out to make a film that I purposely eschew all of that other stuff that I think other people would do. I’m vaguely aware that they would do it. I’m vaguely aware that maybe it’s a challenge for me not to do it, but I don’t know.
My films have, up until now, anyway, have a serious lack of b-roll. I do kind of suck at choosing b-roll. In When Jews Were Funny, what would the b-roll be? I went to Shecky Greene’s house, he kicked me out, should I have gotten some shots of him eating a sandwich?
When you use the same b-roll as everybody else, I feel like I was just watching your film, now I’m watching every film that ever uses b-roll, now I’m going back to watching your film. I believe that a film should be, that a good film is unto itself. It has its own rules, it has its own thing, and it’s consistent unto itself.
If you’re going to break your own rules, you’d better have a damned good reason.
You mentioned that you delved into documentary almost by accident, and you mentioned the Maysles, but were there other specific films, even now, that you look at and draw cinematic inspiration from?
I draw cinematic inspiration from any film, documentary or not, where I see that the people involved thought about what they were doing and decided to go for it in whatever way.
Recently I saw 20,000 days on Earth, the Nick Cave film. Not that my faith in filmmaking had to be restored, but it restored it. It’s not just documentary filmmaking. Take an fiction film, like Rhymes for Young Ghouls which I saw a couple of years ago, a film where you think, “there’s the filmmaker!”
That’s not to say that there aren’t perfectly good filmmakers whose films don’t strike me as “this is filmmaking”, but, yeah, I love filmmaking and I love seeing it. I love knowing that somebody’s practicing it. If you’re practicing it and in pursuit of something that also interests me, it’s amazing.
When Jews Were Funny, at least overtly, seems a little bit more straightforward in terms of the filmmaking. It seems more you delving into the conversation, dealing with talking heads, that sort of thing, whereas HURT feels more composed in a more cinematic way. Do you think that’s fair?
I don’t know if I think that’s fair. I think that When Jews Were Funny has a surface meaning, an enjoyable surface that allows the film to be completely enjoyed on that level, but if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t have won the prize that it won [Best Canadian film at TIFF 2014].
Now, I’m not usually patting myself on the back or shining my own apple, but I think all of my films are all the same for me in that way. I’m really glad that I got to make a film like Hurt, and in all the ways that it’s different, even obviously different, were a joy to take part in. But for me to accept what you’re saying, I’d have to accept that talking heads isn’t cinematic, and I don’t accept that.
Ok. How do you think the working of this film has changed your next projects?
Well, the thing is, I don’t have a next project right now. I have a few that are possible. And it’s changed it in that When Jews Were Funny was part of a personal genre that I had worked on in my first three documentaries. At the time I had intended to never do again, but I ended up doing it one more time. I don’t really want to make films like that again.
At a certain point I started thinking, well, I should come up with a documentary subject. I would just sort of come up with this, I don’t even know what to call it, it’s sort of a film about 10 people who drink coffee, a film about 10 people who go to exercise class…
I made a film about people who are negative about people who can’t get a girlfriend. They’re good films, but all of that time, I was thinking, when are you going to make a film about a real documentary subject? But I didn’t come up with any, and had to make another film just to make a living.
A subject like Fonyo isn’t going to just come up while you’re browsing online. I don’t even know what another film like this or another subject like this would be. I’d love to do another character study, spend a year with somebody, see what happens in their life. But you can really blow that. You can choose badly, and it makes a really mediocre film and then go crazy trying to figure it out and make it good.
I don’t know – it’s art, it’s hard. I’ve never been very good at finding subjects. I see people in other films and go, wow, how’d you come up with that? Wow, you’re good at this. This is probably the best documentary subject I’ve ever come up with, and I don’t know if I can do it again.
I know you have just finished it and you talked about why it’s relatively unique in your film output, but would you say that in some ways at least this is your strongest work?
I think that it’s fairly obvious that in some ways it is. It totally makes sense to me that it’s the film, at least at this moment, seems to be getting more attention than anything I’ve ever done.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I believe it’s fairly accessible. For all the sort of decisions I made to not go with certain conventions, I believe it will still be fairly successful, that a wider audience could enjoy it more than they have enjoyed some of my other films.
I’ve been aware from the first documentary I made that there was a sort of conventional version of that documentary that would have done better in the world. Not better with people who love filmmaking, but just better with general audiences. So I made a film about record collectors and not put myself in it, not talked about my mother or my dog or wanting to have children, just put a bunch of loveable, eccentric people prattling on about their records and being kind of funny, that could have been a big hit.
When I made I, Curmudgeon, there was a lot of interest in that, people heard it was a comedy, they thought it was funny. Then they saw it, there I am, talking about whatever the hell I was talking about, I made instead a film about a bunch of loveable, funny curmudgeons saying funny, negative things, that would have been a much more successful film.
In this case, I’m thinking, all of the non-conventional things I did might work in this film’s favour, it might make it more commercial, or whatever that means. So I think it might be my most successful film. Whether it’s my best film, well, in the sense that you just keep getting better. It looks good, I think, it’s pretty, I think it has a lot of pleasures for an audience, but then again, I never thought my other films were uncommercial or anything. You tell me.
I responded very positively to the film, that I saw it as something that leaves a space for an audience, but also promotes a certain beautiful aesthetic, and a complicated narrative and what else would one want from a cinematic documentary than to feel that you’ve been shown something that is complicated, not something that is very simple.
The thing that you haven’t asked about, or the thing that I haven’t brought up is, that one of the things that drew me to the subject was that I thought, that could be a story worthy of a fiction film. It’s a weird thing to say that a story good enough for a fiction film, to hear that from somebody who makes documentaries, but I do find that most documentaries don’t have a story worthy of fiction.
They certainly don’t often have a protagonist like this who goes through such a journey.
Right. What I’ve always found, and I think it’s almost too obvious to say, there’s a lot of things that could happen in a fiction film that would hit you very hard and yet they can always be kind of dismissed because they’re not real. When somebody in a documentary tells you the same story, it can be mind blowing.
When I made A Hard Name, a film about ex-cons, I’d seen a lot of ex-con movies, a lot of prison movies, a lot of films with criminals. Yet when those people told me the simplest thing about prison or their past, every one of them was bang, bang, hit me in the heart.
If you have a story worthy of fiction, but the extra quality that comes to an audience when they know that’s a real person who they could meet talking about their real life, that to me seemed like a very powerful potential, though it was a gamble because I didn’t know if anything would happen in the year we spent with him that would help tell that story.
The gamble seems to have paid off.