Friday 13 September 2019

COPPERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2019 - Zweig Explores the Humanity of Policing

Coppers (2019)
Dir. Alan Zweig

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It seems that with each film by Alan Zweig I have the same response after I view the new work for the first time. My response goes something like this:
Great. Yet another masterpiece of filmmaking. When will Canadian filmmaker Alan Zweig go wrong? When will the runner stumble? Ever? Or will he continue to feed the soul of the world with one terrific picture after another?

Thus far his output includes such critically acclaimed and award-winning work as There is a House HereWhen Jews Were FunnyHurtHope15 Reasons to LiveA Hard NameI, CurmudgeonLovable and Vinyl.
If his newest film, Coppers, is any indication, there’s no stopping him.

This raw, nerve-jangling, darkly funny and extremely moving documentary portrait of retired police officers has its World Premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Zweig’s frank, incisive interview style is always the hallmark of his work and no-more-so does it shine than it does here. In the film, Zweig betrays his deep-seeded hatred and mistrust of cops – something he developed from his many years of driving cab on the night shifts of some of Toronto’s meaner streets. But like all of his previous work, he is genuinely interested in learning something new about the subjects and worlds he chooses to focus upon. What he learns in these explorations is dazzlingly applied to letting us learn things as he does.

The retired cops he interviews open up to Zweig and their stories are often horrifying. The movie hits the ground running with one officer’s recollection of her first night on the job when she was forced to save a victim of a violent crime with an empty pizza box. I’ll let you discover on your own why she needs this cardboard receptacle and how she uses it, but it’s worth noting that what Zweig sets up is an extremely effective mode of conveying the horrors cops face everyday by doing interviews in moving vehicles as his subjects drive through the mean streets of their former beats and are reminded continually of events that continue to haunt them.

He revisits the cops in a multitude of settings that allow for continual variations in their respective states of being and memories.
I think anyone who thinks they know what being a cop is like or thinks that all cops are scum incarnate, will have their eyes opened. And yes, occasionally all those negative aspects of policing do indeed rear their ugly heads in the film. One of the things I responded to on a personal level, was getting to know these men and women and their lives as officers, but at the same time feeling a sense of familiarity with the subjects – the stories they tell, the manner in which they communicate, often felt queasily recognizable to me – not because of the clichés we’ve become used to in film and television policiers, but I kept seeing and hearing things I heard from my own father who served as a policeman for ten years until the pressure and horrors of the life forced him to leave the force and make a new life for himself.

Like many of the officers depicted in the film, though, there were aspects of the life that never seemed to escape him. For me, I kept seeing something in the eyes of all the officers in Zweig’s movie – men, women, of colour, or not – a sense of having seen things that never leave their hearts and minds, reflected in their gaze so many years after. Even now, I can see that incalculable, almost indescribable pain in my own father’s eyes.

With Coppers, it’s clearly apparent that bad, evil, racist cops exist, but at the same time, Zweig also allows for an alternate perspective – a perspective that he himself discovers on his journey as a filmmaker. Though this might seem like an oxymoron, it’s anything but. Coppers explores the humanity of policing. By putting faces and emotions to the lives of these officers we experience something genuinely unique. We hear about their horrific experiences – everything from blood-spattered homicide scenes to domestic abuse cases and beyond.

Contrasting this are the results of constant exposure to things most of us can only imagine – results that include suicide, depression, PTSD, alcoholism, domestic disfunction and often a need to seek early retirement from a profession that is deeply damaging and disturbing.
I hesitate to use the word “sympathetic” to describe the approach, but it is most definitely humane. In spite of this humanity, or perhaps because of it, Zweig’s film doesn’t veer from the ugly side of policing – especially within the organization itself.

One of the stories involves the first Asian woman to work in the Toronto Police Department – the racism and sexism she faces from her colleagues and superiors is beyond the pale. The police service bureaucracy upholds her as a “poster girl” for diversity within the department, yet behind the scenes she is treated with disdain and overt hatred. We get a sense of her dreams and optimism at the beginning, but how her feelings are decimated and betrayed at every turn.

Yes, the film provides plenty of horror stories from out in the field, but doesn’t veer away from the cruelty exhibited behind closed doors. The implications are clear – if this is the kind of behavior exhibited towards officers by colleagues and superiors, how far does this extend to the communities the department is charged to “protect and serve”?
What’s wonderful about Zweig’s documentaries is that you always feel like you’re seeing something new, fresh and exciting from a filmmaking standpoint.

He utilizes a number of recurring visual motifs in the lives of these retired officers that are not only effective storytelling techniques, but are genuinely cinematic. In film after film, Zweig displays a unique voice and style that is all his own. He makes documentaries, but he is not a documentarian (a word I hate and often relegate to the lowest order of those cranking out dull informational docs with no voice or real perspective). Zweig is a filmmaker, an artist – of the highest order. Coppers is a great movie and not to be missed.


Coppers: World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2019)