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Wild’s look at addicts’ lives breaks stereotypes

Katherine Monk
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, September 14, 2002

TORONTO -- Nettie Wild strides across the floor of her hotel room in her bathrobe, moving from the bed covered in tidy stacks of paper, to the bathroom, and back again, with an unmistakable sense of purpose.

Special to the Sun Dean Wilson and Ann Livingston in a scene from "FIX: The Story of an Addicted City."

She may be collecting hairpins. She may be collecting press notes and contact numbers to offer prospective film buyers. Regardless of the task, Wild seems to do everything with an unmistakable sense of purpose and passion -- and it's become a hallmark of her oeuvre.

From her radio documentaries for CBC, to her body of award-winning films such as A Rustling of Leaves, Blockade and A Place Called Chiapas, Wild has carved out a reputation as one of Canada's most socially committed film-makers.

Her latest film, FIX: The Story of an Addicted City, is yet another consciousness-raising piece, but this time, she's not chronicling a revolution in some far-flung part of the world -- she's bearing witness to a tragedy taking place in her own backyard: the so-called "drug problem" on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The documentary features three main characters -- Dean Wilson, a former IBM salesman and drug addict who heads VANDU (the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users); Ann Livingston, a non-user and VANDU organizer who has found spiritual purpose in the fight to make things better for the thousands of Vancouver users at risk of becoming the next statistic, and Mayor Philip Owen, who tried to introduce a four pillar drug strategy modelled after successful European programs -- and found himself pushed out of office by his own party as a result.

As Wild cruises through the hotel room getting ready for the FIX premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Livingston and Wilson walk through the door.

Livingston puts down her Chanel bag packed with freebie makeup -- one of the perks of being a festival guest -- and flops on the one bed not covered in press kits. Dean sits down in a chair and pours a glass of red fruit smoothie.

Within minutes, producer Betsy Carson walks in and everyone starts putting on their party clothes. Wild says the mayor would have been here too, but he had a scheduling conflict.

"It's a pyjama party," says Wild, who decided to fly her "talent" in for the festival using her own resources. Yes, Wild calls the subjects of her documentary "talent" -- the term normally used to refer to professional actors in a feature film -- but that's because Wild sees FIX as more of an emotional narrative than a documentary. In that end, she also hired local editor Reg Harkema to turn the 357 40-minute tapes that were shot over the course of two years into a cohesive 92-minute movie journey.

"I always hire dramatic editors for the films, but I thought it was time I finally brought in a Vancouver editor," says Wild. "What sold me on Reg was his cut of Hard Core Logo. I thought it was superb. Oddly enough, he said he was inspired by Peter Wintonick's cut of A Rustling of Leaves."

Wild says most people in Vancouver, and for that matter most of Canada, are vaguely aware of the city's drug crisis, but no one has been moved enough to pressure government for safe injections sites or other harm-reduction initiatives.

For that reason, she didn't think it would help to make a film that was simply a journey past the political checkpoints -- where the frightening statistic of more than 1,200 overdose deaths over the course of 10 years wouldn't have a human draw.

Livingston and Wilson are the human draw, and as they sit here in the hotel room they're sharing with Wild, they seem completely unfazed by the festival schmooziness that surrounds them.

Like Wild, their minds are fixed on getting the message out to the masses.

"I think the great thing about Nettie's film is that it breaks the Hollywood stereotype of what heroin addicts are. They aren't different from other people," says Wilson.

"I see the film as a tool," says Livingston. "We have a chance at reaching the critical audience. We can set up table in the lobby. We can let people know that in Vancouver alone we have 3,000 dead people just from overdoses ... and nothing has happened. People think because they hear the term harm-reduction that it's actually happening, but it's not. Toronto doesn't have nearly the same death rate and they have a harm-reduction task force."

Wilson and Livingston have been repeating the bleak numbers, the horror stories and the pitch for safe injection sites so many times it permeates almost every conversation -- even something as empty and banal as film festival chit chat.

So how do you feel when you see yourselves on screen, I finally ask, seeking the lowest common denominator.

"It's kind of embarrassing," says Livingston. "I'm not used to seeing myself. It's hard for me to tell if the movie is even any good. I have no distance. I don't know, I'm just not sure if I'm comfortable having people see me hanging out in the kitchen in my nightie. I'm a bit worried about my dad seeing it -- he'll find out I go to church."

The room erupts with laughter.

"The press has asked me what I'm doing making a documentary about Vancouver -- there's no revolution going on there," says Wild. "And I say, just you wait. It's starting."

FIX: The Story of an Addicted City will have a special benefit screening as part of Mayor Owen's farewell from office on Oct. 16. Tickets are $100 and will go toward drug education and getting the film into classrooms across the country. Fix opens theatrically in Vancouver on Oct. 18.

© Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun

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Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

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Updated: August 21, 2016