A dream life was destroyed in 1996 for Murray Siple, North Vancouver resident thrill-seeker and photographer. A natural athlete who spent his youth as a quarterback, mountain biker, snowboarder and sport filmmaker, Siple's fast-forward life in motion was abruptly halted when he was involved in a car accident rendering him a quadriplegic.
For eight years he did not pick up a video camera. Then one day, Siple decided to say hello to the homeless men he always saw in the parking lot of his local grocery store, dropping off their empty bottles for money.
"They were immediately accepting of me," recalls Siple, whose curiosity would bloom into a full-scale National Film Board production, Carts of Darkness (2006), which recently screened at the 2008 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto in April. By the way, it was one of my top picks of the festival.
"It was like we were all outsiders."
Siple would get to know this motley crew of outsiders who spent half their days picking up bottles ($11.50 for a day's pickings is considered decent) and the other half riding hari-kari down the slopes of North Van on shopping carts. The film is a technical wonder of point-of-view shots by cameraman Christian Begin. As a viewer, it's both exhilarating and terrifying.
Siple's film provides personal glimpses into the day-to-day lives of these men âe" most of whom have deep-seated alcohol abuse problems. Two of the four characters stand out: Fergie and Big Al.
During filming, Siple says four other homeless men, whom he got to know, died.
"There's nothing you could do. I'd offer them help but it was rarely taken."
The director pauses to reflect on the kind of relationship he had with the men.
"I saw their needs, they didn't have jobs, no I.D., no new clothes âe¦ but they were thinking they were doing me a favour by participating in my project. And when I arrived in my van, they would come over and wheel me. But you know, I drove down here, on my own. I can wheel myself!"
Siple says in the end, they simply decided on one thing: "We were friends. That's all."
He also purposely avoided exploring the men's alcoholic purgatory: "That wasn't what fascinated me about them. It would have been a different film. My film is about exposing stereotypes, it's not about alcoholism."
Siple says he called his film Carts of Darkness as an homage to the Joseph Conrad book, Heart of Darkness.
"In Conrad's book, you follow people up a river into the Heart of Darkness. Well, I'm going down this asphalt river in much the same way."
In one scene, Siple engages in an all-afternoon drink with Fergie âe" who reveals that he has children and lives near them but won't visit them. Fergie, a still-handsome man in his late 40s, says he doesn't want to inflict his pain upon them: "I'm better off in the bush."
Siple discloses to me that Fergie is haunted by one incident in his life âe" he insisted on driving his family to an event at the age of 16 but crashed the car, killing his parents: "He says he hit his parent's liquor cabinet and never left."
Then there's 6'4" Big Al, the heart of the piece.
"He'd call me after drinking and say: 'I'm coming over!' and yeah, it kind of scared me," admits Siple, with a smile. Eventually, the filmmaker would have to set parameters with the men, whom he would have over for dinner.
Big Al, a gregarious red-headed strongman, treated Siple with casual candour.
"He'd call out: 'Hey Murray! You crippled bastard' or he'd refer to me as 'wheelchair buddy.'"
Siple says he learned a lot about living by doing his film.
"I had chores, I had to go to the bank, I had to organize things and they go around, collect bottles, BBQ some salmon and ride carts âe¦ I admired them. They had this freedom that they honestly enjoyed."
Big Al is the one who shows Siple how he rides carts âe" his technique, which carts give the smoothest journey (smaller wheels in front, by the way), what are the best running shoes to wear etc. We learn that he was engaged, had a job and an apartment but has somehow chosen a different path, one that includes drink.
Big Al is pretty direct when asked why he rides the carts: "They're just cheap wheels." He's also quite proud of his lifestyle: "Hey I'm making money [picking bottles] while doing my sport." You can't fault him for that.
Siple says following his guys around for more than a year (with 100 hours of footage) was emotionally draining: "I was depressed after four months of editing. I needed to spend time on my own."
There is a bright light, though, at the end of this downward tunnel. Siple says at the first public screenings of the film in Vancouver and Victoria, he brought some of the men along.
"People cheered and clapped. They were asking for their photos and talking to them. The guys had their parents there, too."
Siple says Big Al's parents were in tears after the screenings. Since those showings, Al has gone back to live with his family, quit the drink and also stopped collecting bottles.
"That's such a reward," says Siple. "Al still rides carts and he calls me about three times a week."
Fergie is in a homeless shelter: "Hopefully, we can encourage him to put the bottle down."
Siple says his next project will be a scripted feature and of course, he will continue with his photography: "My skills haven't changed just because I'm in a wheelchair. It's irrelevant to my art."
He's also proud that his film features many of Vancouver's top indie bands including Black Mountain, Ladyhawk and Bison.
"They really liked the themes in my film: freedom and rebellion."
While Siple's film may have taken a page from Heart of Darkness, its final chapter is hardly nihilistic âe" there is palpable joy and liberation in the last frames. Cart driving is, in a word, intoxicating.
NOTE: You can catch Siple's film at the NFB's Mediatheque in Toronto on these dates: July 17 and 18 at 7pm, July 19 at 3 pm and July 20 and 22 at 1 pm.