By Jeff Kubik
[JK: What first drew you to this project?]
“Vancouver’s my home town and it’s in a lot of trouble, but I have to say I came to this film reluctantly because I didn’t want to make just another movie about how God awful it is in the downtown east side of Vancouver. But two things happened.”
“When we were finishing editing A Place Called Chiapas we were editing in a space in Gastown which is the heart of the drug district in Vancouver and I foolishly parked a car full of video tapes which was part of a project of my colleague and co-producer Betsy Carson. I left the car in a parking lot, edited for four hours, came back and the car had been broken into. The tapes were gone and I realized ‘Oh shit, I know that all it would take for someone to look at these weird tapes because they Beta-SP tapes and they’ll just throw them away,’ so I ran to the closest dumpster and I opened it up. I don’t know who gave who the biggest heart attack, me or the guy inside who was shooting up.
“It was this really graphic introduction to the alleys of the downtown east side to see this scared human being with this needle he was about to shoot up in his groin. So Betsy and I spent the next two days crawling through dumpsters in all the alleys of the downtown east side and it was just like walking into the most surreal set imaginable. It wasn’t just seeing one or two people shooting up, it was maybe as many as 15 in each alley with people kind of sliding down the walls and shooting up heroin and cocaine. Finally, after a couple of days one of the patrol cops came up to me and said, ‘how valuable are these tapes to you?’ And I explained the story and he just said, ‘go home, you’re creating havoc down here, you don’t understand what’s happening. I went home really shell-shocked and a lot of friends of mine said ‘oh, here comes her next movie.’ I said no, being really shocked is one thing but that doesn’t make a movie, but what did was when, a few months later, someone asked me to go to a meeting in the bowels of St. Paul’s Hospital. I walked into this meeting and there was Anne Livingstone, one of the central characters of the film, and she was mad as hell and prepared to do something about it in terms of the whole drug crisis. She’d called together a meeting of people saying, ‘we know what we have to do, I’m going to open a safe injection site, if you want to help me come to this meeting.’ So I walked in, and there she was and there was the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which if you’ve never met them before is quite a group to run into. There was a crown prosecutor whose son was addicted to heroin, there were the street nurses whom I didn’t even realize existed before, there were renegade bureaucrats, AIDS activists, just a room full of the most happening people I’ve ever run into this city and they were all mad as hell and ready to do something about it.
“They said they were going to work towards opening a safe injection site in four months and I thought, ‘bingo, that’s movie.’ Eighteen months later I had shot 350 hours of video and there wasn’t a safe injection site in sight, but what I realized was we were in fact documenting the birth of a social movement. That was the beginning of it all.”
[JK: While you’re a filmmaker, you also have a background in journalism. How does that affect the dynamic of your films?]
“My whole family is a family of journalists and before I got into filmmaking I was working as professional actress but because of my family’s background I would often ply my way working in journalism. That included quite a lot of work with CBC radio.”
“I see my role as a storyteller, I’m not an activist although in my private life I am and my work gets used by the activist community. But I don’t make activist films in that I pride myself at plowing into contradictions in an effort to get to the drama of the story, getting closer to the so-called ‘truth’ and in doing that my films are saved from being propagandistic. It’s kind of a lonely place, actually, because if you are loyal to the story as opposed to a party, movement or political checklist it means there’s a certain point in every film where you keep filming past the point where your heroes look heroic. The reason you do that is not to destroy those people but rather when the contradictions present themselves I think it’s very important to keep the camera rolling as opposed to stopping because it’s in those contradictions that the real drama of the story lies. Where this elusive thing called truth lies. But it is a lonely place because I’m not a hired gun of a movement, no one else is in that editing room except me and my editor and there’s a distance in that. It’s a great thing once the picture is locked because once that picture is locked and the film is out there for what it is, people can claim in and run with it.
“In the distribution, for instance, the former mayor of Vancouver Phillip Owen, had a farewell benefit screening of Fix which was in fact the premiere of the film and in one night he raised $140,000 for Fix to get onto 35mm and get onto the road. So at that point I am, as a filmmaker, stepping right into politics, there’s no avoiding it. And I embraced it, it was lovely. But, that’s very, very different than when you’re actually shooting. You have to be able to go home at night and go to sleep knowing you haven’t affected the action of the movie and in cutting you haven’t cut a convenient film, you have to create a film that’s cut according to the truest thing you can produce and sometimes some of those truths are pretty uncomfortable.
“I think it’s what makes, for instance, Anne and Dean, really complex and intriguing characters and, to their credit they let me keep rolling. This film has a degree of intimacy that none of my previous films have had.”
[JK: To what degree do the forums add interactivity to the experience?]
“We designed it that way, all our films when they’re distributed have forums after them. The reason for it is twofold. One, it’s a great publicity tool, a way to use community-based organizing to get people plugged into the film and get the word out about the film. We’re very blatant, we tell our audiences to go forth and bring us back more audiences. We also work with community-based organizations who are working on the issue to bring people out. So, on a very self-serving level, other people might have Julia Roberts, I have Dean Wilson and Anne Livingstone. So there’s a pull. We do interviews like this and we get our audience out.
“The other reason we do the forums and the huge effect it has is much less self-serving. We can achieve two very humble objectives with the forums. One is we can get communities speaking about the unspeakable and for communities outside of Vancouver this is really important because the issue of visibility is huge. It’s such a stigma to be a drug addict and when you get out of big, bad Vancouver where it’s all in your face and you get into the suburbs of Vancouver or smaller towns across the country it’s really important to create spaces where it’s OK to talk about this stuff.
“The second objective is to provide people on-stage with us who can provide information about what’s happened to the characters of the films-for instance, Phillip Owen is going to be opening the film in Calgary on Friday and Saturday night and Anne and Dean are going to be there Monday through Thursday. We are also inviting front line workers from Calgary itself together with users and former users to answer questions that people in Calgary have about what the devil is going on in their own city, and that’s very important. It’s one thing to start talking about stuff but to actually see there are already informed health care professionals dealing with it gives people a sense of momentum and hope and that’s important.
“It’s a wonderful point where art and politics come together and I love it. I love it the best when we’re playing a Cineplex Odeon or a Famous Players and we’ve got The Matrix on one side of us and who knows what on the other and we usually do better at the box office than the whole bunch. It’s great when you’re really working in the popular culture, you’re not buried in some church basement-nothing against church basements-but it’s a very exciting place to be. It’s kind of turning the cinemas into the village well and I really like it.”
[JK: What kind of media coverage did you find VANDU was receiving during their fight? Would you say it was balanced?]
“So much of it was sensationalized. I guess ultimately the short answer is no because the media-for the most part I’m talking about the mainstream media-doesn’t have the time, either on the ground to do the research, gathering the information or editing or the time to get it out there. Most people are turning in two to three minute pieces maximum or very short newspaper stories and that’s where a documentary like this is so much different from current affairs. It’s not only a matter of length and time, it’s a question of time on the ground, you’re weaving a real story with a huge dramatic art, a synthesis of a period in time. In essence what we ended up doing was holding a mirror up to a community and what was reflected was the birth of a social movement and that was wrapped up in the story of these three extraordinary people. So you get a depth and complexity that I’m hoping will throw people down a road they haven’t walked. At the end of those 90 minutes they’ll go, ‘Jeez, what would I do?’ I think that’s very hard to achieve in the mainstream media.
“Some of the alternative media have taken a real crack at it and this is by no means ‘the definitive statement on the downtown eastside of Vancouver.’ Like any good story it’s a specific story which takes you deeply into one set of contradictions. And, if it’s well told, it helps throw light on the whole, though it’s certainly not the voice of God on everything that moves down there.”
[JK: How long did you end up spending on this project?]
“We started in the spring on 2000 and we’re still on the road with it. We’ve been on the road for a year with Fix. We’ve played over 35 cities and towns across the country and we’ve had forums every single night in every single one of them.”
[JK: How has the film been received?]
“The coverage has varied but overall it’s been incredibly positive. We get into this situation where we end up with whole new sides of the papers, newsdesks or whatever, become embroiled in this issue as does the art side. That’s been a very interesting phenomenon and a very welcome one.
“Where you get a real pulse of the community is in the forums themselves. They are wild. We get everything from people wanting to know the hard facts. Like, how is Calgary different than Vancouver? How many injection drug users are there? What are the main drugs that are used? And they will be shocked by the numbers they hear, everyone, everywhere is.
“Where it gets really interesting is when people begin asking questions and you start to realize they’re not hypothetical. You start to realize there are a heck of a lot of people in that room who are dealing with it one way or another. So one of the things I like to do is to ask the audience to put up their hand if they have anyone in their family or extended family of friends who is using cocaine, for example. You always hear a gasp in the audience at the number of hands that come up. What you become aware of is that communities are already dealing with stuff, parents already have kids who are getting dope in school, families already have people who are either just smoking too much dope or are actually addicted. Sometimes that’s kids, sometimes that’s parents.
“People are dealing with it big time and they ask questions like ‘what do you do when people start stealing from you,’ and you realize there’s someone who is already dealing with it in their family.
“What has become very interesting is that people are willing to talk about it in public. It’s just mind boggling when you consider some people reveal for the first time that they’re dealing with an addiction, standing up and saying it in a movie house full of strangers or taking a more private moment and sidle up to one of the health care professionals afterwards. The health care professionals that work with us say they’re never as busy as the 45 minutes after a Fix screening.
“There’s a huge disconnect between the communities and the politicians and the health authorities, right across the country. First step up, municipal councilors and mayors are usually terrified to deal with it. They think, ‘God, if I touch this I’m not going to get elected.’ But the reality is that communities are already touching it, so there’s a big difference. With the exception of this wacky election that just happened in Vancouver where the city council, after everything that went through with Phillip Owen, one candidate came up in the middle and said basically ‘vote for me and I’ll open a safe injection site’ and they got elected with the biggest majority in the history of Vancouver. There aren’t many cities where the politicians are going to stick their necks out on that but the reality is, I wager, that if they did they’d be very surprised at the kind of support.
“Everybody’s very spooked about the right wing reaction but the reality is that whether you’re right, left or in the middle of the road somewhere along the line you’re dealing with it, likely as not. In the other places we’ve been, often the health authorities are very nervous about dealing with this but the parents are beyond nervous, they’re freaked out. The kids are already dealing with pals who are addicted or are addicted themselves, they’re already dealing with methamphetamines, your city’s got methamphetamines pouring into it as I understand.
“The forums always surprise me. I like to say that the audience is just full of experts.”
[JK: Much of the battle seems to be over terminology, words like “harm reduction” can be extremely contentious. Does that battle continue?]
“In Vancouver it’s so much in the air now that we’ve kind of gone past that, however in virtually every other city there is. In places like Kelowna, activists referred to the Okanagan Valley as the ‘Valley of Denial.’ We were told we were not to use the term ‘harm reduction’ because it had become this lightning rod. It had been erroneously portrayed as, ‘they’re just giving out drugs and we’re all going to Hell in a handbasket.’ In so many places where there’s real fear around this, the word becomes demonized as everything which has to do with drugs does. A kind of instant stigmatization happens. But even in those communities characterized as being really conservative communities, we’d go in thinking ‘we’re going to have to pussyfoot around this that and the other’ and we were wrong. Because if you’re dealing with a parent whose child is addicted they are so far beyond all of that stuff, they are just worried sick and don’t know what the heck to do.
“Our audiences tend to be very broad. We reach out to people and say, ‘look, it doesn’t matter what you think, maybe you’ve never even heard of harm reduction but you’ve heard of safe injection sites or ‘shooting galleries’ or ‘needle parks’ or any of that kind of stuff’ we encourage people to come to the movie. We create a safe place with the forums, it doesn’t matter what you think, you’re not going to be pilloried as long as you treat the people who are there with respect. It’s way more interesting when you have people who stand up and honestly challenge what’s happening.”
[JK: What function do safe injection clinics play?]
“Safe injection sites are an entry point where people who have been the most marginalized can actually enter into our system, because a lot of these people don’t have any relationship with our system, the relationships they have are with their dealers and pimps. It’s fabulous, I always have confidence in our audiences.”
[JK: Talk to me about Dean and Ann.]
“The theme of the film is addiction in Vancouver but the entire arc of the film is ‘will Dean Wilson be able to kick heroin, be able to keep the girl? Is he even in a relationship with Anne?’ I never knew when we were shooting quite what was going on because relationships are dodgy at the best of times, you throw heroin into the mix and they’re really quite interesting. The film is quite ambiguous because life is ambiguous, I never knew who was sleeping with whom or whatever. I figured, ‘well, that’s what we’ve got, let’s just embrace it.”
“Anne Livingstone’s character is the one who actually flumoxes most people and intrigues most everyone because you have this really smart, articulate woman getting involved with Dean who is very smart and articulate and also very addicted. So you can hear the audience collectively scratching its head going, ‘what are you doing?” And on the other hand they can see what she’s doing, there’s something else at work beside practicality. And ain’t life strange in the way it does that?”
“As a filmmaker when you see that emerging you go for it like you go for water in the desert. That’s the story that, no matter who you are, whether you’re for or against harm reduction, whether you even know what harm reduction means, you do know what the dynamics of a relationship are. You do know what the stakes are when you’re trying to hold a relationship together. So, whether you understand why in the world Dean Wilson is addicted or understand what he’s talking about, you can relate to somebody who is trying desperately to get his act together in order to keep someone he loves in his life. Everything else comes along for free.
“That’s the story I’m loyal to. I’m dead in the water as a filmmaker if I start saying, ‘now I need an Asian user whose father is a shopkeeper.’ Then it becomes rhetorical. When you’re on board one of these relationship stories that’s the train that really drives it.”
[JK: Despite their loose alliance, Dean Wilson and Phillip Owen seem to remain distanced. In one scene, Owen reveals he assumed Wilson had already kicked heroin.]
“I love that scene because although they’re talking about Dean Wilson it really reveals the character of Phillip Owen. He’s desperate to believe. He wants to believe that Dean is going to get off of drugs, in fact: he’s off drugs. And the other people in the room are seasoned cops and health care professionals are just sighing, it’s like dealing with Peter Pan. It’s what’s frustrating and lovely about Phillip because he never gives up on people. You end up with this guy who’s super straight, bringing all that to this story, and at the same time he embraces something that is so far out of his experience, actually ending up in an alliance with Dean Wilson. The two of them are as far apart in the universe as you can get. That’s another turn that I would defy any scriptwriter to come up with characters like that. It’s the wealth of the film.”
[There’s a police officer who plays quite a prominent role in this film. On the one hand, he admits defeat in the war on drugs, while on the other he refuses to accept the idea of safe injection sites. Is this a common attitude?]
“I think Doug’s also being really honest, a lot of people think like him. He genuinely wants to help the community, he genuinely thinks that safe injection sites are liberal baloney, and that’s why we put it in the film. There’s this huge debate in ‘copdom’ and there’s all these guys trained to bust drug dealers and drug users and now they’re being told this is not a crime, it’s something else which must be dealt with in another way. I think eventually the Dougs of the world will come around because as long as we continue to fight this war on drugs the frontline police officers are screwed because they’re going into an impossible war and it’s not for wont of trying. Basic community-based organizing, if you want to organize people you don’t set up impossible hurdles, you go down to where they are and ask, ‘what are your issues?’”
“We’re not saying I can’t treat you until you say no to drugs, we’re saying let’s in this moment make sure you survive and find health within that, however that’s defined, which may include absence down the road.”
[JK: Tell me about Dean.]
“Dean, during the making of the film, tried to kick at least four times. We collapsed it into one so we could tell the story clearly. Since then he has tried several times. The most important thing with drugs and addiction is that you never pronounce on people, never say never. One day, Dean Wilson’s body may just get sick and tired of being sick and hopefully the system will be there for him. In the meantime, if he should never be successful, the trick is to create a community where there is a place for him that is not dangerous, that’s not going to kill him, where he’s not going to be dangerous to somebody else, which is really key. This isn’t all about the drug addict, our whole community goes down the toilet when drug addiction is allowed to flourish in this way.”