by Ian MacKenzie
Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s latest documentary, Coppers, is a disturbing, sad and very moving look at the long term effects of working as a police officer. It recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I was able to speak with the director about the film.
In 2009 director Alan Zweig made A Hard Name, a film about ex-convicts, and ten years later comes Coppers, a film that explores the lives of the men and women who helped convict them in the first place. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. The only thing the men and women in Coppers have in common is that they’re retired and ready to look back. They tell gruesome stories, sad stories and a few funny ones but the gruesome stories dominate — they’re just part of the daily grind. Heads indeed can roll and guts can spill. Most cops have seen that happen at least once in their career. It’s a profession marked by adrenaline and chaos but also by suicide and marital breakdown. Some coppers feel they can sail past the mayhem and decomposing bodies. But no one leaves the job without a mark, and not everyone bounces back.
“I drove a cab for 18 years and I hated cops,” Zweig told me over the phone while doing press at TIFF. “I always saw them as bullies. But when I met Gary I saw a tough guy who had been through a lot.”
Gary is a one of the people who appears in the Zweig’s film. His early conversations with the director inspired the idea to make Coppers. He helped put the word out that Zweig wanted to speak with former police officers about their experiences on the job. He ended up with thirteen people who appear on camera throughout the film, a mixture of male, female, black, white, old and young. A few appear unaffected by what they saw, while many are traumatized to some degree. Divorce, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, racism and sexism are all part of the personal battles that they have fought.
The job is pure chaos — from “Coppers” documentary
Zweig’s approach is not typical of most documentary films, which usually opt for a slicker approach with snappy edits and fluid editing. Instead, the subjects appear seated at desks in front of a microphone, as if they were at a deposition or giving testimony, and often their answers are edited for length by the use of jump cuts. The director is heard throughout, asking questions and pushing for answers, sometimes without success.
“That’s something I’ve always done in my films,” Zweig told me. “I’ve been interviewed myself and I know how the process works. Sometimes you want to get answers that reform the questions and it becomes a bit like acting or shaping a performance. My way of doing it is to have a conversation.”
What the interview subjects don’t say is just as significant as what they do say. One officer, who describes his time on the force as an “adrenaline rush” and “pure chaos,” talks about being involved in incidents that went undocumented. When pressed by Zweig to say more he sits silently for a moment before quietly stating, “I can’t talk about it.”
“It allows your imagination to take over and make you wonder what it was that happened,” says Zweig about his choice to leave that in the film. “The audience can hear the question being asked, and it’s just as important even if they don’t share something.”
Another officer, who is unapologetic about his behavior while on the police force, says that “there are things that the general public doesn’t need to know about.” He maintains that he doesn’t want to share stories out of a desire to not implicate a former colleague in something that happened years ago.
Car accidents, violent assaults, murders, and the death of colleagues are among the experiences shard during the interviews. There is the occasional funny anecdote, an example of the dark humor that cops are well know for possessing. One veteran officer who left the force in 1989 says that his sense of humor is what got him through the job. “If you can find a reason to laugh you can walk away from a dead body,” he shares with Zweig. He later chuckles as he shares a story that was the catalyst for one of his partners leaving the police force and going to work for the TTC. It’s grotesque and disgusting, but hearing him tell it gives you a sense of how he got survived his years on the force . Many audiences will likely be repulsed by his anecdote and his apparent lack of sympathy for his ex-partner.
“I think that if I saw something terrible, like a dead body or a human head it would affect me a lot,” admits Zweig. I compared the experiences and trauma that police go through to that of soldiers returning from combat and Zweig said, “They don’t get the same attention as war veterans, and trauma is something that I’ve been dealing with in my films, especially my previous documentary about ex-cons.”
Ultimately Coppers generates a lot of empathy for those who appear in it. It’s impossible to watch it and not be affected. Regardless of your thoughts on the police in general, you can agree with a statement made by one of the film’s most sympathetic participants. “Any normal person working this job is going to be affected by it.”
Watch Coppers trailer below:
Coppers will air on Canadian television station TVO in a few months.
Click to Read a Related News Story from the NYT: “She Begged Them to Take Away his Police Revolver. He Died Anyway.”