MountainSummit: Filmmaker Murray Siple’s ‘Carts of Darkness’
August 27, 2009
ASPEN – Murray Siple was a snowboarder in the sports’ early days. At Sun Peaks, a mountain in the interior of British Columbia, in 1986, he was one of a handful of boarders in a sea of skiers. “There were 10 of us on the hill. We could recognize one another by our jackets,” he recalled.
Siple thus felt an attraction to the group of homeless men he would see at the Save-on-Foods supermarket near his home in North Vancouver. Like Siple and his fellow boarders, the homeless folks were outsiders, and their outsider status was something they reveled in: They enjoyed the beauty of coastal B.C., the serenity of affluent North Vancouver, just across the inlet from the big city, and the freedom of their existence.
“They’d be having this really good time, making comments with the customers,” said Siple. “It was a really pleasant scene for homeless people to be enjoying their summer, interacting with people going into the store.”
Siple mentioned the scene to an acquaintance. The response stopped him short: “You mean the guys riding the shopping carts down the hills?”
These homeless men weren’t just soaking in the sun and joking with passersby. And the shopping carts that were their constant companions weren’t just for collecting recyclables. The homeless were riding the carts on the streets of North Vancouver – streets that can make San Francisco’s hills look like speed bumps. They were speed junkies, like Siple had been in his days as a snowboarder and maker of snowboarding movies.
“Right then, I knew I had a film,” said Siple.
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Siple’s “Carts of Darkness” depicts more than the sport known as “shoppingcarting,” which has a person hanging onto the back of a supermarket cart, flying downhill at up to 50 mph. The documentary, which shows at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29, at the MountainSummit festival in Aspen, is an intimate but wide-range profile of the homeless community that lives just under the radar in North Vancouver. Siple casts an eye on their living spaces, skirts with the law, alcohol habits and communal ways. Much of the film’s 59 minutes explore the business of collecting and selling discarded cans and bottles.
The resonance of the film – nominated for six Canadian Leo Awards – stems from Siple’s own condition. Since an October 1996 high-speed car accident in Vancouver, and a subsequent misdiagnosis in the hospital that led to an exacerbation of the original injury, he has been a C-6 quadriplegic. Known as a “low-level” quadriplegic, the 39-year-old Siple has some use of his arms; he can use a manual wheelchair and a cell phone. He has no sensation or mobility below the waist.
“Carts of Darkness” focuses little attention on this back story; the car accident and his previous life making snowboard films are mentioned in passing. Siple himself, however, is a presence on-screen, interacting with the homeless men. As he tells their story, he is also making a subtle inquiry, clearly trying to take away from their existence some lessons for himself.
“I was in a wheelchair, so they knew I was searching for something in myself out of their experience,” said Siple, who is scheduled to participate in a discussion following the screening.
One of the first things Siple discovered was a sense of frustration. The homeless were tied to nothing – not jobs, nor families, nor houses, nor schedules. Siple, bound to his wheelchair, was envious. But beyond that, he saw that the homeless had about as much mobility in their lives as he did in his body.
“If they wanted to change their lives, it was so hard for them to do,” said Siple. “They didn’t have IDs, so they couldn’t get a job or an apartment. The more I was with them, the more I realized they needed shelter. They had to face some of the realities that people with homes do.”
The eye that Siple casts on this community is nonjudgmental in the extreme. He doesn’t exactly glorify the homeless – although the shoppingcarting sequences do reveal a sense of awe – but his take is upbeat. One man, Fergy, is shown to be a skilled musician; another, Big Al, is an extreme daredevil on a cart – no pads, no fear, no excuses for anything. Siple said his favorite of the group was Bob – “a philosopher, artist, musician, who always did something in return for the bottles” left out for him, said Siple. “I thought that was beautiful and unexpected.” As a group, the men barbecue salmon, camp in the woods. And drink a lot of beer.
“I think their sense of freedom is what drew me in. In North Vancouver, it seemed like they were just enjoying the outdoors,” said Siple. “Racing the shopping carts – that’s definitely something I wanted to capture. And once I filmed that I saw there was so much more going on in their lives.”
Below the surface of “Carts of Darkness” is a reflection of Siple’s years as a snowboarder in Whistler. “One of many reasons to make this film, I saw a lifestyle that was being engaged in exactly the same way,” he said. “They were both doing this thing with an illegal, fun, punk-rock attitude. And they knew they were the only ones who could do that; there was something unique in their manner. They were outsiders, they knew it, and they were going to capitalize on it.”
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As much as Siple may look with longing on the jobless and bill-free, there is something essential that separates him from them. Several times in “Carts of Darkness,” the homeless brag about how few hours they need to work to cover their nut. Siple is cut from a different cloth. He may be soft-spoken and may love his freedom, but he’s also ambitious.
During his snowboard film era, he made six films between 1992-96. The final one, “Cascadia,” was an artistic stretch – “a horror film where snowboarding killed itself, because it became mainstream. It lost the cachet of being a punk-rock, underground spirit,” he said. For those films, Siple was a one-man crew – cameraman, director, editor, marketing machine, etc.
After he recovered sufficiently from his accident, Siple turned away from filmmaking to focus on making himself a house in North Vancouver. But he brought with him some of his filmmaking instincts: He envisioned a house that functioned as a film production center and as a theater, and had an overall cinematic feel to it. The house was built without ramps or other indicators of a disability. The house won three design awards and had been featured in numerous magazines.
As soon as he could, Siple returned to filmmaking. His first project was “Kronen Strasse,” a short about his German grandmother. That film had been shot before his accident; he completed it using reel-to-reel editing. He is at work on “Sit On It,” about a world champion sit skier that he intends to complete in time for next year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“It’s a profile with an artistic slant,” Siple said. “It’s a take on freedom. Freedom is a theme in all my films.”