Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review - Shed Your Tears and Walk Away

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away is not the best-looking film you'll see this year. The images are clumsily shot and often crudely edited, but perhaps that's because director Jez Lewis has more important things on his mind than artfully composing his picture – he's trying to save a friend's life. Lewis left his home town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire over twenty years ago to move to London, but he still hears stories about the people he grew up with, and the news is rarely good. A series of suicides in the community prompted Lewis to head back to Hebden, camera in hand, and to make this documentary in an attempt to gain some insight into why so many locals have taken their own life. In this quaint tourist town he finds a dark underside of drink and drugs, and it is from this bleak situation that he tries to rescue Cass.

Graeme Cassidy was Jez Lewis' closest friend when the pair were schoolchildren, and he remains a much-loved figure among all who meet him. Warm, funny and amiable, Cass spends his days sitting with a group of companions in the park, drinking the days away. Cass, however, may not have many days left to waste, as he has already received a grim warning from his doctor that he will have less than two years to live unless he changes his ways. The central narrative of Shed Your Tears and Walk Away becomes Jez's attempt to help pull his friend out of the alcoholic spiral he finds himself in, and the revelation of just how difficult – perhaps impossible – that task may be. One notable sequence shows us a completely different Cass, when he moves to a rehab centre in London and remains sober for a significant period in which he starts studying, grows healthier and begins enjoying a life outside the bottle for the first time in years. However, his emotional connection to his hometown soon starts drawing him back, and even on the train north he gets the urge for a drink once again. It's as if Hebden Bridge itself is a kind of alcoholic vortex that sucks everyone into it.

Lewis occasionally expands his focus beyond Cass, but there's tragedy wherever he looks. A 25 year-old dies in the town centre after a binge-drinking session, and when Lewis interviews his mother she admits she spent so much time worrying about her other son's heroin abuse she overlooked his brother's self-destructive drinking habits. The director achieves a remarkable intimacy with his subjects and gets them to open up to his camera in a way that they sometimes can't do with anyone else. One of the most tragic figures in the film is Michael Silcock, known as Silly, who is one of the regulars in Cass' drinking troupe. In a heartbreaking scene, Silly breaks down on camera as he recalls the experiences as a soldier in Africa that keep him awake at night. These are memories he can't even share with his fiancée and they keep him drinking in an attempt to numb the pain.

A quote from Silly gives the film the title Shed Your Tears and Walk Away but Lewis refuses to walk away from this desperate situation. He keeps filming even when he is watching his friends in dire straits, only turning the camera off in one scene as a negotiating tactic to stop Cass from opening a can of Special Brew. Yes, the film is often technically slapdash, but the rough-and-ready nature of its construction seems fitting as it mirrors the raw, complex emotions contained within. As we watch Cass make a tentative step towards sobriety and Silly slip further into despair, Shed Your Tears and Walk Away remains compelling and occasionally painful viewing with a personal edge that gives it a particularly powerful impact. The film ends on an ambiguous note with Cass and Silly, despite the support and encouragement of Lewis and others, teetering on the brink of their old ways. I'd like to think there is still hope for Cass, but Silly seems to have no fight or heart left in him as he drinks himself into the abyss.