Last week I saw Alan Zweig’s new documentary “A Hard Name.” In the film he interviews men and women who have spent their lives cycling in and out of the prison system. It is an intimate and moving piece that explores the root causes of crime, the intricacies of prison culture and the struggles that people experience trying to make it on the outside after years of institutionalization.
“A Hard Name” is by turns inspiring and harrowing, and the rawness and intensity of the emotions expressed at times took my breath away. Zweig made the film with a compassionate eye, and shows the complexity and humanity of people who are often seen as one-dimensionally “evil.”
Zweig was kind enough to let me interview him about the process of making “A Hard Name”, and how he was affected by the experience.
Joan Ruzsa: Your other films that I’ve seen: Loveable and I, Curmudgeon, had a large autobiographical component. What compelled you to make a film about prison, a subject that seems to be outside of your personal experience?
Alan Zweig: I made the first of those three so-called personal documentaries after many years of knocking around, trying to make films without much success. Vinyl was by far the most well-received thing I’d ever done so I thought maybe I should try to do something similar again. So I did. And while I was doing that second one, “I,Curmudgeon”, I thought maybe I had one more in me. I felt like that there was an issue in the background of those first two films – namely being alone – and if I addressed that issue directly, I could put that part of my “autobiography” to bed, finish a de facto trilogy, and be able to move on without feeling something was left unsaid. You’re always trying to find a balance, I guess, between finding your voice and not repeating yourself. I think “A Hard Name” is a lot like those other three films except that it’s not so directly autobiographical. And by that I mean, though I’ve never been to prison or committed a major crime, for some reason I’ve been especially interested in those issues my whole life.
JR: I know for me, I can pinpoint two things that really solidified my interest in, and commitment to justice issues. One was seeing the film “Dead Man Walking”, which made me think about how our adversarial and punitive justice system does not create a space for healing or reconciliation for either the victim or the offender. The second event was that a friend of mine started using a lot of heroin, began committing robberies to support his habit, eventually got caught, and because he got a shitty public defender, ended up spending 2 years less a day in jail. I started thinking about who we criminalize and why, and how our prisons warehouse people instead of offering help or treatment for the underlying issues that led them there (mental health issues, substance use, poverty, systemic racism, etc.)
Do you know what sparked your interest in these issues?
AZ: I think there were two things that fuelled my interest in these issues and they both came from my upper middle class background. One was a healthy dose of liberal guilt and the recognition that people from my background seldom went to prison. The other thing was a very healthy disrespect of authority. I started to worry that one day I would say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and end up in more trouble than I bargained for. This feeling was reinforced when I drove cab, which I did for 15 years. I had a number of very very minor run-ins with cops, who for some reason, always used to think that cab drivers were up to no good. I started to see how some cops were really on a hair trigger and really couldn’t take even a minor challenge to their authority. My mouth and their ridiculous sensitivity combined, made me start having virtual nightmares about going to prison someday.
JR: What did you learn about the justice/prison system through the process of making this film? Did it change your view of the system or reinforce opinions you already had? Did it add to your fears of going to prison?
AZ: Making the film changed how I look at the world, not just the prison system. It wasn’t a 180 degree change. There’s nothing I learned that I didn’t always suspect. But there’s a difference between suspecting and knowing in the deepest part of your being. How would I characterize it? Well I guess the thing that all of us think about when we hear about a crime, particularly one where the perpetrator actually put their hands on their victim, is “How could they do that? How could they be so cruel? How could they be so mean? How could they care so little about a fellow human being?” And I think this should always be a question. But now I have a bit of an answer. If you don’t care about yourself, it’s hard to care about another person. And when we say “they don’t care about themselves” in the context of a lot of people in prison, we’re not just talking about garden variety low self-esteem. We’re talking about a level of self-hatred and shame that few of us can understand unless we’ve lived their lives. I’m not excusing them exactly. But I have noticed, I think, in my limited experience, that the more they care about themselves, the more they care about “us”.
You ask if it affected my fear of going to prison and the answer is yes. The most frustrating thing for me – and I’ve actually thought about making a film about just this narrow subject – is that when I ask ex-cons whether there’s anything we as a society can do to decrease violence in prison, they say no. No way. Give up. Change the law, change the rules, change the culture, prisoners are still going to kill other prisoners. I can’t accept this, though I admit that the changes that might be required are so deep and so much about changing our very characters that perhaps they’re right. So yeah, in spite of being told “if you mind your own business and follow the rules, you’ll be all right”, and in spite of the fact that I’m an old man and not as cute as I used to be, I think I would have a hard time in prison. And that’s partly because I’m not really that good at minding my own business.
JR: How did you find the subjects for your film? Other than having done time, did you have other criteria for your interviewees?
AZ: As far as finding subjects goes, I looked for subjects for my film for a few months before I got lucky by being introduced to Harry Nigh and The Friends of Dismas. And that actually happened because a colleague of mine had seen a short film mostly about Harry on Vision TV. I may have had problems finding people because the kind of people I was looking for at that, more or less don’t exist in Canada. I had read a couple of articles about American prisoners in their eighties or that vicinity, who were let out of prison in their last years of life because they were seen to be “harmless old men” and there was no need for them to die in prison. I wanted to meet people in that category. In fact I was calling the film “Harmless”. But I couldn’t find anybody in Canada who fit that description. Or maybe I couldn’t find anybody who could help me find those people. Even when I went to the Dismas meeting for the first time, I was still looking for older ex-cons. So I gave my appeal that night and I didn’t find what I was looking for, but one of the men there – Keith, who was in his forties – came up to me and said he’s ready to talk. At that point I had a choice, make a film about middle-aged ex-cons, who it seemed I could find, or give up and try to give the money back.
JR: Did you have any apprehensions or fears about interviewing “criminals?”
AZ: I suppose I had some inspecific apprehensions about interviewing criminals. Some people suggested I be cautious but I had to more or less put that out of my mind because all it did was lead to these occasional flashes of paranoia which wasn’t helpful or reasonable. I’m not sure I’m capable of acting on someone else’s experience or advice. My inclination was to go with my gut and trust them until I felt I shouldn’t trust them. I guess all I can say is that it was an issue from time to time and I had a few moments where I wasn’t sure I should be doing what I was doing and with a couple of them, there were issues of reliability but nothing bad or even a little bad happened over the course of gathering the material.
JR: One of the things that’s often talked about in the prisoners’ rights movement is looking at the root causes of crime: that is to say, rather than looking at a crime in isolation, to address some of the circumstances that lead people to commit crimes. I thought you addressed this beautifully in your film.
The people you interviewed shared some very personal, painful information with you: some of the common threads included childhood sexual, emotional and physical abuse, neglect, abandonment and other forms of trauma. How did you deal with hearing these stories? How did your interviewees feel about having shared so much with you? Did you show them a rough-cut of the film? Did any of them have reservations about the public seeing the film? If so, how did you address those concerns?
AZ: Let me deal with the easy parts of that question first. I didn’t show any of them a rough cut of the film. I don’t know if they were worried how the film would turn out because any time I talked to them, they all seemed remarkably trusting. Like “I know you’ll do a good job Alan. I’m not worried.’ They really had no reason to feel this way. I wouldn’t trust any filmmaker unless I’d seen their work and even then. I think with some of them, I’d gotten to know them after we did the interview, not before. I was seeing some of them at Dismas which my wife and I continued to attend after we had finished the interviews. I guess they saw me as almost a friend and I have to say, maybe there was a kind of naivete involved. Maybe they trusted me because unlike me, they didn’t know just how exploitive a film could be.
I think I was the only one who was worried how they’d react to seeing themselves in the film and to the fact that they were so open about certain aspects of their lives. But I felt like I’d been fair and I hoped they’d feel the same way.
As far as how I handled hearing the things I heard, I’d divide that into two answers. How I felt at the moment I heard them and how I felt later when I was away from them. When I was there and they told me some of the sad things they told me, part of me was like any human being hearing shocking or sad stories, but part of me was a hard-nosed ruthless filmmaker, putting his head down and saying to himself “We can cry about this later”.
And when later came, I won’t say I cried but I was haunted throughout the course of gathering material for the film. I felt like I’d been shown something and it was changing me on an almost cellular level.
As far as how they reacted after they saw themselves sharing those sad stories in the film, none of them shared any particular shock or embarrassment or regret with me. I think it was important to them that the film be honest. True. I think what shocked them the most were the stories they heard from their fellow interviewees. “You don’t put your business on the street like that”, one of them told me. I don’t know this but I think that they admired their fellow interviewees for being honest and that they felt good what that said about them, that they’d been similarly true.
JR: Do you still keep in touch with the people you interviewed? How are they doing? I felt particularly concerned for Art, the guy who engaged in self-mutilation. He seemed so broken. He also clearly showed the effects of long-term institutionalization. Although prison had been a nightmare for him, at least there he knew what was expected of him. It’s so sad that for many people, life on the outside seems more frightening than life in prison. Is he OK?
AZ: I am actively in touch with three of the people in the film. A fourth I was in touch with until a few months ago when he moved away to Edmonton. I miss him. One of them lives out of town and I haven’t seen him much but I’ll be seeing him in a week when the film is being shown in the town where he lives. One I lost touch with before the film was finished. And one I’m having trouble keeping in touch with. Then there are people I interviewed who aren’t in the film. One died, unfortunately, and one of them I’ve become genuinely friends with. One of the three I am in touch with is the man you mention – Art – the guy many people seem to recognize from his panhandling at the Castle Frank subway station. I think he may be the most damaged person I’ve ever met and yet sometimes we’re shooting the breeze and he seems absolutely clear and insightful and even capable of taking care of himself. I think his continual survival – which he claims to be none too happy about – is quite a tribute to our survival instinct. But it seems his survival instinct is not enough to get him out of the hole he’s in and if anyone ever had the “right” to their pain, I think it’s him. And yet still I try to push him out of it.
JR: Something I often hear when talking to the general public about prisoners’ rights or alternatives to incarceration is that prisoners deserve whatever they get in prison, should not be afforded the same rights as other people, and that prison is the only way to keep “dangerous” people out of the community and make them accountable for their behaviour. Having gone through the process of making this film, how would you respond to those claims?
AZ: When I was making the film, I sort of constructed this straw man for myself, a member of the general public who would automatically hate everyone in my film, who would ask me “What about the victims?”, who would say something like “Put ’em in a hole and throw away the key”. But I have to say that when I actually met a couple of people who talked that way, I was surprised. I haven’t had anyone who’s seen the film say that to me. Ånd there’ve been lots of people who I thought wouldn’t need to see my film in order to experience whatever truth there is in it – I’m talking police, prison guards, folks from the Crown Attorney’s office etc – tell me how moved they were and even that it changed their minds about the people represented in the film. But still I know that there are those people who are against the folks in the film, who want prison to be a brutal punishment, who want them to suffer, who couldn’t care less what happens to them. And my feeling is that if you want your fellow human beings to suffer, you’re a heartless bastard and you’re just lucky that your son or your daughter or your Father or Mother hasn’t gotten themselves caught up in this brutal system that you approve of. I don’t really know what else to say. I can’t imagine what logical argument I can make to try and convince someone to love or understand their fellow man. They’re vengeful; there’s nothing good or humane about that. Or they’re stupid and they can’t keep two conflicting thoughts in their heads at the same time. So they choose the anger and vengeance and ignore the empathy and charity. I argue against them in my head all the time but ultimately I think the only way they will change their mind is if they get to know a criminal or a prisoner or an ex-con and find out that they’re actually human and frail and insecure and scared like they are.