Alan Zweig’s was surprised his film A Hard Name won a Genie Award last month for best feature-length documentary.
One of the subjects featured on Primitive Entertainment’s A Hard Name.
The documentary was a departure for the Toronto filmmaker, whose previous films, a trilogy on self-discovery, Vinyl, I Curmudgeon and Lovable, focus, respectively, on record collecting, crustiness and lovability.
A Hard Name, on the other hand, focuses on ex-convicts.
“I read in an article that when ‘lifers’ get to their 80s and get sick, U.S. prisons release them,” Zweig says. “Since they were old men, prison officials weren’t worried they were going out to hurt somebody and they’d release them, so they wouldn’t die in prison.”
At the same time, he saw an interview with an ex-con who had been on America’s Ten Most Wanted list. “He was 80 years old, a dangerous criminal that was out of prison and in a rocking chair – the contrast of those things intrigued me.”
After Zweig received funding for the film, he ran into a snag when he started looking for subjects. “I couldn’t find people that fit the bill or that would talk to me if they did. I found younger ex-cons, so it was talk to them or not make the film,” he says.
After seeing a Vision Television documentary about a man running a support group, he met subjects through him and at a Peterborough, Ont., halfway house.
Most of Zweig’s subjects have spent 30 to 40 years in and out of prison for bank robbery, possession of drugs and weapons. One man admitted to stabbing serial killer Clifford Olson while in jail.
But it’s not only the topic that sets this documentary apart from Zweig’s trilogy. “In the others, I was physically in them, and in this one, I’m not,” he says. In his self-discovery films, he appears on camera looking into a mirror as he reflects on life.
“In A Hard Name, I put myself in as a character in the background,” says Zweig, whose voice can be heard as he interviews and converses with ex-cons.
“When I watch a film, if there’s no voice or off-camera character, when something is said, I want it answered and commented on. If not, I start to feel like it’s empty and cold, like the person is just saying things to me and nobody is answering for me in the audience.”
Although A Hard Name was a finalist for the Special Jury Prize for Canadian features at last year’s Hot Docs film festival, as well as being voted a top 10 audience favourite at the festival, Zweig says he’s been criticized in the media for talking too much and not allowing his subjects to speak more.
But as the subjects converse with Zweig, they open up and tell him their childhood stories of abuse and about their adult struggles outside prison walls.
“Many ex-cons were surprised by intimate details fellow subjects told me about their childhoods and about things that might have made them seem weak – it’s almost like breaking prison code,” he says.
A broadcast of A Hard Name is planned for TVO this summer. The DVD is available at www.primitive.net.