Filmmaker Murray Siple
Would you pay to watch a movie about homeless men who race stolen shopping carts? It may sound like an unlikely premise for a film, but it’s the focus of Carts of Darkness, a documentary that’s wowed critics and audiences in Vancouver and Toronto, and is poised to become an international hit. It’s also director Murray Siple’s first film since he sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident in 1996.
Carts of Darkness explores a side of Vancouver that most people are content to ignore: the world of “binners,” or people who collect bottles and pop cans from residents’ recycling bins in order to claim the deposit money.
The idea for the film was born one evening when Siple was shopping for groceries in his neighbourhood. “I noticed some loud individuals who were cashing in bottles, and I had a romantic vision that both of our lifestyles were stereotypes to the passing customers: the drunken and comically disordered bottle-returners, and me, ‘wheelchair-bound’ and precarious in my adapted vehicle.”
Siple was intrigued by these boisterous strangers, and wondered if there might be a deeper story he could tell. One summer day in 2005, he brought a video camera to the parking lot and introduced himself. “When I approached the men with the idea to make a film, a world was revealed to me I had never expected to discover in my own neighbourhood,” says Siple.
Filming began that day, and he worked independently for about a year before the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) agreed to fund the project.
The result is a film that, like its title, is clever and funny, with serious undercurrents. The narrative follows a motley crew of men: Big Al, Fergie, Bob, Geordie, Little Al, Max and Buckles. Each man came to bottle-picking in his own way, and each has his own demons to fight. They all have an independent streak and an intricate knowledge of the city’s best places to collect empties (Big Al says that on a good day, he can make $70).
Siple shows that nothing is quite as it appears, and that we are not as different from our fellow human beings as we might think. He also uncovers an adrenaline-pumping pastime that rivals any extreme sport – the film’s most exhilarating scenes are of men flying down a mountainside on clattering shopping carts loaded with bottles or chunks of cement, the handlebars pushed up into their guts as they hunch over to let the air stream off their backs. They deftly manoeuvre the carts around curves, holler as they streak past cars and houses, and brake, Fred Flintstone-style, with the soles of their shoes. On some runs, they reach a hair-raising 70 kilometres per hour. Incredibly, crashes are rare, and injuries are minor.
We recently talked to Siple about making Carts of Darkness, how his disability fit into the film, and the fine art of racing shopping carts.
Jaclyn Law: In the film, you said that you never felt like you belonged in your North Vancouver neighbourhood.
Murray Siple: Before I was injured, I was living in Whistler and making snowboard videos. I had a trailer that I used to drive to ski mountains so I could use it as my mobile filming station. I was travelling, filming snowboarding and living this rock-star lifestyle. I took a break and moved to Kamloops, got injured in an accident, and came out three years later with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. I renovated a house in North Vancouver that became a model of accessibility and independence. I’m glad to have the opportunity to live in this house, but I feel like the oddball.
JL: You also said that you were drawn to the “outlaw energy” of the bottle-pickers.
MS: I’ve always been drawn to people who have something going on, on the edge, something that’s got some energy to it, and not just doing what the herd is doing. That’s why I was always loving skateboarding and snowboarding. They were the types of people who were progressive and pushing the limits, always trying to do new things, and with that attitude – sort of punk rock, in a way. So when I saw these bottle collectors at the grocery store, they were the oddballs – shirtless, drinking, being loud and obnoxious and funny, and I thought, ‘I want to meet these people, I want to film them and see what they’re about.’ At that point, I didn’t know they rode shopping carts, just that they stood out among the affluent North Vancouver shoppers.
JL: Can you describe North Vancouver?
MS: West Vancouver is one of the richest areas in Canada for sure, and North Vancouver is right next to it. The higher up on the hill, the richer people seem to be. People living up there have million-dollar-plus homes and are not worrying about three dollars’ worth of bottles going in the blue box – that’s why it’s such a gold mine [for bottle-pickers]. There’s nobody scavenging up here, it’s transient-free, the mountainside…if you’re not an athlete, you’re not going to come up here. The men walk up every day. They know it’s worth it. When we were filming, in less than two blocks, Big Al filled up his shopping cart. Downtown, those guys will push their cart all day for $20.
JL: This film was a journey for you as well as a documentary. You wondered, in the film, if you could capture the essence of your old life by delving into Big Al’s life.
MS: It still bothers me today…I haven’t found a good outlet to release pent-up energy. Before I was injured, I would get on a snowboard, skateboard or whatever, and do something reckless and get a thrill out of it. That would help me express myself physically, and now, as a C6 quadriplegic…I know there are [adaptive] sports, but they just don’t compare to my old lifestyle. So [I seized] the opportunity to hang around these guys who were riding shopping carts. Seeing them ride the carts is just such a thrill! My heart was pumping after the first time I filmed them. I got to the bottom of the mountain and felt like I had done it as well, and that’s a feeling I hadn’t felt for nine or 10 years.
JL: Do you think that your having a disability helped the men open up to you and share their stories with you?
MS: Yes, definitely. It wasn’t verbally expressed, but they were just surprised in general that I even wanted to talk to them, [and my] being in a wheelchair was helpful. They’d been riding these carts for 15 years, and no one had once talked to them about it, photographed or videotaped them. When I offered to work with them and make a film about it, they were immediately accepting, and as soon as the camera came out, there was no hesitation. They wouldn’t stop talking – it was as if they were waiting for someone to film them. As we became better friends and the relationship started to build, they became more involved. If they knew I was coming [to visit] and I needed certain things, like a clear path for my wheelchair, or if there was someone I should talk to, they would set things up for me – they became part of the filmmaking process rather than just being subjects.
JL: How was the filmmaking process different, compared to when you didn’t have a disability?
MS: There was a big difference in the style of directing. When I made snowboarding films, I was a one-man show – I would raise the money to make the film, do all the organizing, film all the talent, edit, find music, do the artwork and publicity, everything. I was just starting with limited resources, so it had to be that way. With Carts of Darkness, I was able to delegate a huge amount of those jobs and focus entirely on how I wanted the film to look aesthetically. I had some control over what was happening within the frame. I didn’t have to be hands-on, and at first that was scary, but really that’s the way it should be. Directors are in a chair and sit on the side and give direction – other people do the work. There’s no difference between being in a wheelchair or director’s chair. I was able to focus a lot more than I could before. There were limitations sometimes with accessibility, but I could always be picked up in my chair and put down if needed. The film crew had a lot of responsibility. Sometimes I couldn’t make it to a location where we needed to film, like down by a creek, and I would give a set of instructions and questions, send them down, get them to interview the person and show me the footage and I’d make sure I got what I wanted. I had to sit in my van, wait half an hour, hope they’re doing the right thing and come back with something. In the end, they did and it was always great. The downside was that trying to keep up with able-bodied people did push my limits quite a lot. My days are cut in half compared to the energy and strength of able-bodied people, so trying to keep up was a huge physical effort.
JL: How long did filming take?
MS: Filming took place over three summers. There was a year of writing and research, three summers of filming, and another year of post-production, editing and whatnot.
JL: Unlike a lot of other documentary filmmakers, you appeared in your film – why did you decide to do that?
MS: Initially it wasn’t my intention to be in the film in any way – just behind the camera and doing research. But when the NFB came in and decided to fund this as a feature documentary, they came up with this suggestion that I should be involved in the film based on the fact that there’s a relevance there, that I used to film snowboarding and these guys are going downhill. So I started to practise putting myself in front of the camera and describing, in diary fashion, what I was going through every day. I started to get used to it, and started to realize, ‘I’m not just looking for their story, but it’s helping me find my story and why we are both stereotyped due to our modes of transportation.’ When people see a shopping cart, they might immediately jump to conclusions that the bottle-pickers are similar to Downtown East Side people, who are drug addicts and homeless, just because of the shopping cart. And with the wheelchair, sometimes I get the feeling that someone feels pity for me, or they think I was born this way, or has no idea who I am or what I’m doing. They just assume, ‘Oh, wheelchair person.’ I and the characters had a bond that way – we’re misunderstood, when the reality is so different.
JL: What did Big Al and the other men think of the film?
MS: They’ve come to a couple of the premieres in Vancouver and North Vancouver. They’re proud of it. It’s great to see how energized they are at the end of the film. Big Al has quite often taken part in the question-and-answer sessions at the end. It’s helped them legitimize their choices in life a bit, to have this type of lifestyle. I’ve also had Al’s parents come to one of the screenings. They and Al didn’t have the best relationship before the film, and now they’ve sort of rekindled their relationship and Al [who lived in the bush when the movie was made] actually quite often lives at home now. His parents have brought him in, and they told me there’s been a change in Al for the better since the film came out, which is super-rewarding for me. I can’t pay these people, but to hear there’s a family connection was quite overwhelming.
JL: What has the reaction been like in Vancouver?
MS: It’s just been huge! We’ve sold out most of the shows, and people are really anticipating this. I started filming three and a half years ago, and when I got the first little bit of footage, I started showing people, and word’s been lurking out there. People have been waiting for it. The film is a bit of a Trojan horse – it’s got shopping-cart riding, but people are coming away with insight into these lives that they weren’t expecting. It’s quite gripped people. I’ve got emails from people saying it’s woken them up and they’ve made changes, because they’ve seen people in compromised positions making an effort. For people to be taking their time to write and tell me what’s happened since seeing the film…I was hoping to make this funny, goofy shopping-cart video like a skateboard film, and it’s turned out to be a lot more. It’s a film with a few messages, and cinematically, it’s really beautiful, and there’s action sports as well. There’s a huge variety in the audience, from little kids to seniors and everybody in between, and it just seems to be enjoyed by everybody.
JL: Your film received great reviews at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. What other plans do you have for the film?
MS: We’ve had requests from film festivals, which is amazing, because normally you would go through a submission/application process, but they’re asking us to send it – I’m super-impressed that’s happening. The film has also been sold to the Sundance Channel for broadcast in the U.S. We’re also submitting it to as many of the major European festivals we can get it into. I’d be really happy to show it outside of the Lower Mainland. It’s such a unique situation to have bottle-collecting on a steep mountainside, in a place where there are return deposits on bottles, guys that learn to ride carts, and a director in a wheelchair who used to snowboard. The subjects and location are so unique – it couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
JL: The scenes of the men racing their shopping carts down the mountain are pretty incredible – they go really fast!
MS: There were actually times when I’d go to make arrangements with Al for the next day’s shooting, and he’d say, ‘You’re here now, why not give me a ride up the mountain?’ It was nighttime, it was raining, and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ But we put the shopping cart in my van, I drive Al up the hill and he rides down the mountain highway in the rain, at night – no light, no helmet. Over the three years we filmed, I never once filmed him wiping out. Only two guys crashed, and no one was hurt.
JL: The film concludes with you riding down the mountain inside Big Al’s shopping cart. What was that like?
MS: It took me six weeks to get up the courage to do that! I knew if I committed to something like that, there was a high chance of me getting back in the hospital if I wiped out. I didn’t want that to be the end of the film – me being hurt. But I had to put my trust in Al, and as soon as we were going, he was super-confident. It felt great – it felt like being on a snowboard going down a hill. We did it three times! It got my adrenaline going. I mean, I’ll never do it again, but it was definitely worth it!
JL: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, and congratulations on the making of Carts of Darkness – it’s a terrific film.
MS: Thank you! I was excited to do this interview with Abilities, because of the name of your magazine. I always get questions around my disability, but…I just feel like there are able bodies that do less and have more of a disability, in a way, than I do. I try to express that I’m not a person with a disability – just a person trying to get stuff done. Through that attitude, I’ve overcome a lot of barriers. I really don’t care that I’m in a wheelchair – the only issue is accessibility sometimes, but I don’t limit myself by thinking ‘Oh no, I’m a quadriplegic, I can only do these things…’ There are always people willing to help, especially if they see determination in someone.
Carts of Darkness will be available on DVD from the National Film Board of Canada in October. Visit www.nfb.ca or call 1-800-267-7710 for details. Also, please visit www.murraysiple.com for more information about Murray Siple, dates of upcoming film screenings, and a trailer for Carts of Darkness.