By Jeff Kubik
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a despondent place, with one of the highest per capita crime rates in the world and a staggering community of addiction. For filmmaker Nettie Wild, seeing this decayed place firsthand was a horrifying, surreal experience.
"It wasn’t just seeing one or two people shooting up," she recalls. "It was as many as 15 in each alley with people sliding down the walls and shooting up heroin and cocaine."
In exploring this culture of addiction, Wild soon found herself drawn to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an organization devoted to the principle of "harm reduction"–improving the quality of life of those addicted and living on the streets of Vancouver. From providing clean needles to the eventual creation of a safe injection site capable of supervising users in a controlled environment, VANDU represents an organization whose goals offered hope to an otherwise hopeless people and the beginnings of her documentary, Fix: The Story of an Addicted City.
"I walked into this meeting and there was Ann Livingstone, one of the central characters of the film," says Wild. "She was mad as hell and prepared to do something about it in terms of the whole drug crisis with VANDU who, 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 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 in 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 ‘there’s my 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."
Over the course of 18 months, Fix follows Vancouver’s harm reduction movement spearheaded by activists Ann Livingstone and Dean Wilson, placing the culture of addiction and the fight for safe injection sites in a compelling, human context. Like the forums which follow each screening, giving audience members the opportunity to speak to frontline health care workers and the documentary’s subjects, the film allows audiences an intimate look into the story behind the saga of the first safe injection clinic and the characters behind its creation.
"Most people are turning in two to three minute pieces or very short newspaper stories and that’s where a documentary like this is so much different," explains Wild. "It’s not only a matter of length and time, it’s a question of time on the ground. When you’re weaving a real story with a huge dramatic arc, a synthesis of a period in time, you get a depth and complexity that I’m hoping will throw people down a road they haven’t walked."
Dean Wilson, the charismatic leader of VANDU, serves as one of the film’s central characters. As both a political advocate and active drug user, his struggles, both political and personal, ground the film in a very human context. By no means perfect and certainly fallible, Wilson and his often ambiguous relationship with fellow advocate Ann Wilson bring the story of Fix into an immediate, intimate context.
"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 Ann?’" explains Wild. "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."
In the end, Fix is a challenge aimed squarely at its audience. On-screen and in person, it shows the very human faces of addiction and offering the opportunity for active discussion. It is too immediate a story to ignore.
"During the making of the film, Dean tried to kick at least four times though we collapsed it into one so we could tell the story clearly," recalls Wild. "The most important thing with drugs and addiction is never to 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."
Fix: The Story of an Addicted City runs Fri., Mar. 26 to Thu., Apr. 1 at the Globe Theatre. Forum discussions will follow all screenings. For more information visit www.canadawildproductions.com.