A low-level hum of sadness has run through our house lately, a byproduct of tragedies elsewhere. The radio is usually on, and for months the airwaves have been vibrating with calamity: Newtown, sexual violence in India, Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons. And now a disaster trifecta: Boston, Texas and an alleged thwarted terrorist attack on a Via Rail train.
Yes, there are criminally underreported tragedies in forsaken corners of the world, and yes, most of us are fine, lucky, uninjured. I am at neither the centre nor the perimeter. I'm not the friend, shaken, who crossed the finish line an hour before the bombs went off, or a student at the University of Quebec who worked in a lab beside a man with suspected al-Qaeda links.
But still, tragedy comes at the bystanders, minute by minute, via our phones and computers; it's different from tangible, personal loss. The school sends advice to parents that says to turn it off and let the kids lead the conversation. But there are fewer guidelines for adults. We aren't survivors of tragedy, just "media survivors." Our only symptom may be compassion fatigue, a psychic numbing from relentless exposure to disaster from a distance. But I feel the opposite: over-sensitized, alert and alarmed.
I was relieved to watch a documentary that soothed through the simple assertion that life remains valuable and well lived by so many people whose stories do not make the news. The film 15 Reasons to Live, playing at Toronto's Hot Docs festival this week, is a study of joy and pain that is quietly instructive but mostly entertaining. It could be called How to Be Happy, and offers comfort to those of us who would never buy a book with a title like that, but still really want to know.
The film is based on a book of essays by Ray Robertson, a novelist I met when we shared a podium a few years ago. I was reading from my first book, and he from his sixth. He had a cowboy hat, a handlebar mustache and actual fans. No one bought my book, and he was kind about that, and palpably in love with the writing life. Since then, Robertson has written that around that time, he was dealing with serious depression after struggling with OCD.
And so he wrote a non-fiction book to make sense of it, mixing philosophy, rock 'n' roll and memoir in a series of essays under headings such as Home, Individuality and Intoxication (the latter is close to his heart). Filmmaker Alan Zweig, best known for his neurotic-with-a-heart-of-gold persona in documentaries like Vinyl and I, Curmudgeon, has made this list into a movie. The two artists are well matched, sharing curiosity about a type of loneliness – the drifting, solitary male artist.
The film follows Robertson's list, but drops his philosophizing in favour of short vignettes with different people recounting personal stories. In Critical Mind, a nine-year-old girl talks about standing up to Catholic-school tyranny. In Love, a woman permits her husband to walk around the world for 10 years: "I loved him enough to give him the freedom to express himself the way he saw fit," she says.
If this sounds inspiring, it is, and I say that as someone who is constitutionally suspicious of any triumphing of the human spirit on film. But 15 Reasons is a documentary, with that form's inherent immediacy and humility. It homes in on small, human profundities. Zweig, whose disembodied voice interviews the subjects, remains his unsentimental, incredulous self even when spinning the heart-warming tale of a humpback freed from a fishing net by whale watchers (Duty – surely it has been optioned by Disney).
The final segment, Death, is the film's most powerful. Atop animation, Zweig reveals his admiration for a successful artistic couple he knows, Don and Tracy, who turn out to be Don McKellar and Tracy Wright, actors-writers-directors. Zweig, who sees himself as the consummate outsider, is pleased to be invited to their annual pear party, where fecund trees in their backyard produce too much fruit each summer. Then Wright becomes ill with pancreatic cancer. Zweig is anxious about what to say in the face of this tragedy. Finally, at a party that will likely be their last encounter, he awkwardly asks her if the pear trees bloomed, as they failed to the year before. Yes, she says: "Everything wants to live."
It is the film's final line.
After the screening, I dug around for a C.S. Lewis quote that seemed like related comfort: "Tragedy is more important than love. Out of all human events, it is tragedy alone that brings people out of their own petty desires and into awareness of other humans' suffering." For a while, the hum faded.