Hot Docs Days 10 & 11: Theo Fleury Playing with Fire, Detropia, Peace, Out

Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire
(Canada, 91 min.)
Dir. Matt Embry, Larry Day
Photo courtesy Pyramid Productions
Hockey’s bad boy makes an act of atonement with Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire. Fleury unleashed a bombshell in 2009 with his autobiography Playing with Fire, which confessed that he was a victim of sexual abuse to his junior hockey coach Graham James. Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire adapts Fleury’s book and lets him speak out at how this abuse led to a ripple effect of alcohol, drugs, and strippers that ultimately compromised his career and personal life. Amidst f-bombs and cigarette breaks, the hockey player makes good by telling people that they are not alone. Through his words and actions, Fleury makes a genuine and impassioned effort to share his story with other people who have experienced abuse.

Most of the film is comprised of an interview with Fleury himself, and he sits in front of a black backdrop and describes his dark past and the memories of sexual abuse that haunted him throughout his career. The film also sees Fleury revisit the haunts of his past. Some of the trips down memory lane offer the most affective moments in the film, especially the scene in which Fleury is denied access to Madison Square Garden when he tries to express to the filmmakers his days with the New York Rangers. The film also features interviews with some of Fleury’s family members, ex-wives, co-workers, league officials, all of whom describe a similar character who struggled to achieve his full potential thanks to his addiction to self-destructive behaviour. The film shows Fleury’s drive for perfection and success by capping off his career highlights with a singing cameo in the notorious bomb Score: A Hockey Musical! Playing with Fire also gives a rather lengthy glimpse into Fleury’s days on CBC’s Battle of the Blades, and has Fleury’s partner Jamie Salé describe Fleury’s drive and character, which illuminates the “love him or hate him” attitude that most people have towards the athlete.

Playing with Fire makes several interesting points in its discussion of Fleury as a dark and surprising character. However, the film might take on a bit too much in telling Theo’s story. At times it’s hard to tell whether this doc serves as an open letter for victims’ rights or as an advocacy piece to get Fleury into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The film certainly makes a clear statement that however rambunctious and out-of-control Fleury’s personal life was in the past, it should not – and does not – change the fact that he made a significant contribution to the NHL while on ice. 

Another story of sexual abuse comes in The Language of Love (Canada, 11 min.), the short film screening with Playing with Fire. Directed by Marie Clements, The Language of Love offers an intimate confessional by Vancouver artist Stephen Lytton. Lytton addresses the camera and describes his years as a victim of sexual abuse in a residential school. Lytton was also born with cerebral palsy, so his story of victimization at the hands of the instructors is doubly disconcerting. Lytton offers his story in a frank and poetic testimony, though, so his story is ultimately an empowering tale of pain and reconciliation. 

Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire: (out of ★★★★★)
The Language of Love: (out of ★★★★★)

(USA, 91 min.)
Dir. Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing
After their successful docs Jesus Camp and 12th & Delaware, directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing make quite a departure from their body of work with Detropia. The film offers an eye-opening observational study of Detroit in its rapid state of decline since the 2008 economic crisis. By following a handful of native Detroit residents who refuse to join the exodus from the Motor City, Detropia tells of a fight for survival and change for working class America.

The first Detroit resident to appear in the film is perhaps the most effective in revealing the city’s state of decay. Chantal is a local blogger who ventures into the abandoned buildings of Detroit. She films the gutted and decrepit insides of the once grand establishments and she muses upon what might have passed through the doors and hallways when the city was vibrant. Chantal also works in a small coffee house across the street from the Detroit Opera company and she describes the grand art house as one the few remaining pillars of the community that brings revenue to local businesses. Sadly, though, the film shows the Opera Company rehearse its final show. Appropriately enough, it’s a rendition of The Mikado that thumbs its nose at the auto industry.

Detropia gains another perspective of the auto industry’s draining of life from a union leader of the auto workers, whose story shows the little disregard that the manufacturers have for their workforce. This storyline of the film also explains how the companies are outsourcing their work for cheap labour overseas, and therefore adding insult to injury to their employees by using money from the Federal bailout to rob Americans of their jobs. The film also receives some astute analysis of the politics and philosophy of Detroit’s decay from Charles, a retired teacher who runs the city’s last remaining Black blues bar. Like the auto workers, Charles has been raised on a strong appreciation for the Big Three automakers, and he uses the rise and fall of the auto industry to voice the spreading of inequality across America. Finally, Detropia suggests little hope for the Motowners, since the only people prospering in the city are the upper class or out-of-town artists who sweep in to take advantage of cheap housing and inadvertently add to the rise of gentrification.

Ewing and Grady weave between the storylines in a fleeting, elliptical style to depict the city in a state of downturn and disarray. Much like this year's We Are Wisconsin, Detropia is a powerful and compelling portrait of contemporary America. Like Wisconsin, Detropia is a great film - one of the best at Hot Doc this year - and it's difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this film and not feel the need for change. The haunting cinematography of the film captures the melancholy of Detroit’s decline for these citizens as they see the city they cherish dwindle into a dead zone of vacant lots and empty promises. The tone and scope of the film are appropriate: As Charles explains in one of the film’s final scenes, when you see a neighbour’s house on fire, it’s best to douse it immediately in order to prevent the fire from spreading to your house. By portraying Detroit as a contemporary dystopia, Detropia puts America on the brink of a collective bankruptcy and suggests that the fires are spreading at a rate too fast to be desired.

Rating: (out of ★★★★★)

Peace Out
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Charles Wilkinson
Peace River Flood Zone - Site C in Peace Out
A disappointing finish to the festival, Peace Out is a dry talking heads piece on the issue of environmentalism in Canada. Focusing primarily on the situations in the Peace River area in British Columbia and the tar sands in Alberta, the film debates the economic benefits of harvesting oil and gas versus the harms that such resources have on the environment. The film has scholars and industry figures explain their position, with the former advocating for Mother Nature and with the latter detailing why they think that oil and gas are viable resources for Canada. The film presents itself as an open debate on the matter by offering due time to both sides of the argument; however, the visuals of the film frequently serve the plea for environmentalism. When the words of a chairman who states the profits of oil are matched with pictures of a factory pumping smoke into an idyllic landscape, claims for objectivity go limp. There isn’t anything new offered by the talking heads, either, so Peace Out essentially regurgitates lectures offered with more cinematic flair in previous docs that encouraged audiences to think green. Additionally, the film offers too many voices and sound bites – it says a lot but ultimately says very little. Peace Out is simply too passive in its portrait of green versus greed. If Peace Out conveyed an argument more forcefully (or at all), it could perhaps inspire the changes that are necessary to save the planet. 

Rating: (out of ★★★★★)