Saturday, 22 April 2017

HOPE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Zweig Casts New Gaze on Fonyo

The following is a review of the new film HOPE, a sequel to Alan Zweig's HURT (winner of the Grand Prize in the prestigious 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s 40th anniversary Platform competition). The subject of both films is cancer survivor and Canadian hero Steve Fonyo. When you finish reading the review, feel free to read my Open Letter requesting Steve Fonyo's reinstatement to the Order of Canada HERE.
Canadian Hero Steve Fonyo Seeks Redemption.

HOPE (2017)
Dir. Alan Zweig
Starring: Steve Fonyo

Review By Greg Klymkiw

During the extraordinary opening shot of Alan Zweig's HOPE, it's impossible not to think about the words from Matthew 6:22, "The eye is the lamp of the body," especially within the context of the old expression, the eyes are windows into the soul. Indeed they are. As King David says in Psalm 101:
I will not look with approval
on anything that is vile...
My eyes will be on the faithful in the land,
that they may dwell with me.
David slew Goliath for the glory of God and the freedom of his people, but even heroes fall. David fell hard, but he eventually sought redemption. After many trials, King David of Jerusalem let the light back in:
"Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit."
The eye that Zweig's film opens on, in extreme close-up no less, belongs to Steve Fonyo. The camera pulls back slowly from within the iris to reveal the full watery ocular orb of the film's subject, a genuine hero, a man who fell hard and as this film opens, he begins a journey to let light back into his life.

Fonyo is a man who is given, by the film itself, a shot at hope - the hope that he will find redemption by finding the strength within himself to change his life, to heal his body and mind, to move forward, to get better. But will he? Is he even capable of it? The cameras trained upon him provide some answers, but only the viewer can judge, and even then, it's all going to be up to Fonyo. And as HOPE proves, it's not an easy ride.

In 2015's HURT, we learned that Fonyo, like David, did indeed slay the Goliath that is the disease of cancer when he made an 8000 km cross-Canada run on a prosthetic leg in 1984-1985 to raise over $14 million for cancer research. We learn about his brave, virtually Herculean achievement and we watch as he is bestowed with the Order of Canada.

However, much of HURT charts Fonyo in a living Hell, the results of 30 years of abject poverty, homelessness, struggling from the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction and often living against the backdrop of the criminal underbelly. This once bright-eyed youthful hero is now a middle-aged miasma of inner demons. Even his Order of Canada is disgracefully revoked by callous pencil-pushers in the Canadian Government. By the end of HURT, with a tiny shred of hope dangling itself before Fonyo, he is brutally assaulted in a home invasion and barely survives a coma and massive stroke.

HOPE opens not long after these events. In a superbly structured opening credit sequence we get the whole backstory and Zweig launches us immediately into Fonyo's new challenge - to enter a top-flight rehab facility in Powell River, British Columbia. We follow Fonyo and his girlfriend as they pack up their squalid digs in Surrey, hit the road and eventually part company as he enters the facility. We follow Fonyo's experience in the facility and the aftermath in which Fonyo hopes to begin a new life in the veritable Garden of Eden, Powell River. We meet with his chief analyst, his oldest friend and biggest supporter during the historic run and yes, Zweig's penetrating eye gives us a glimpse into the fractious love twixt Fonyo and his girlfriend (occasionally venturing into bilious George and Martha territory).

Of course, Zweig, as in all of his films, is present; off-camera, but his unmistakeable voice of gravel pierces through like some omniscient spirit. Supporter and needler, prodding Fonyo to cough-up hard truths, Zweig not only creates cinema, but takes the very act of cinema to the extremes of being the very helping-hand Fonyo needs. (Zweig, the ever-present pitbull, seems vaguely suspect of Fonyo's 12-Step Higher Power choice in the faith of the Jehovah Witness Church, but his probing is always tinged with care and genuine love.)

Most viewers want things served up simply. They won't get that here. Yes, Zweig's film is the very reason why Fonyo makes this decision to go into rehab and bravely the cameras keep rolling as Fonyo somewhat petulantly puts this juju on Zweig. He makes it clear that he's doing this for the film and that he expects the film (and filmmaker) to provide him with what he needs. One of the more fascinating moments is when Fonyo's analyst admits to Zweig that the rehab process might go more smoothly if the film wasn't being made at all. He claims that even when the cameras aren't rolling, Fonyo responds to the therapy as if he was on camera.

Well, of course he would. This is a guy who had cameras on him constantly during his greatest achievement thirty years ago. He's used to the cameras being there and even though three decades have passed, it's old hat for Fonyo. Being in the public spotlight and working it as well as he did is kind of like learning to ride a bicycle.

Is the film, in this sense, exploitative? Sorry, folks. What film isn't? Exploitation in cinema is at its worst when there is a pretence to try and hide exploitative elements. The best cinema lets it all hang out - warts and all. HOPE exposes its own warts as well as its subjects.

This is an extraordinarily moving experience. I can't even begin to affix a value, numerically or otherwise, to the amount of tears I squirted throughout this film, the number of times my breath was taken away by a great shot, or cut or riff in the score. HOPE overflows with heartbreak, melancholy and yes, on occasion, even something approaching joy. There are times when we feel like we're peering into Fonyo's soul beneath the layers of the many masks he dons.

This is the beauty of cinema, however, especially when wrought by a true master like Zweig. The eyes are everything - those of the subject, the filmmaker and the camera lens itself.

HURT so often felt like it was infused with the spirit of the 70s existential palookaville angst of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. HOPE continues this feeling, but at times we feel like we're in John Cassavetes A Woman Under the Influence/Killing of a Chinese Bookie territory. Add the light (albeit murky) of redemption to this mix and you have the documentary equivalent of Coppola's achievement when, with The Godfather: Part II, he made a sequel as stirring, powerful and vital as The Godfather. When a film knocks us on our ass, we seldom expect its sequel to do the same thing. With HOPE, Zweig achieves this with the same dogged, gritty artistry that's made him one of Canada's greatest filmmakers.


HOPE enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.