Theo Fleury doc turns victims to victors

Northwestfest kicked off Friday at the Garneau Theatre with a screening of the documentary Victor Walk, following NHL star Theo Fleury on his 10 day walk from Toronto to Ottawa. He did it to raise awareness about sexual abuse, promote healing and to voice the need for stiffer laws against predators.

It’s continuation of a conversation he first began in 2009 when he released his memoir Playing with Fire, dealing with the abuse he suffered. At a book signing that year, Fleury heard his first “me too!” from an attendee. Since then, his growing grassroots movement has motivated more than 600,000 other “me too’s!” The “Victor Walk” will continue this year in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with screenings in each town.

Filmmaker Michael D. Lynch walked with Theo Fleury – but backwards – for the new documentary ‘Victor Walk’

Michael D. Lynch’s documentary is a heartbreaking and empowering story that brings audiences deep into Fleury’s life. Nothing is held back. He tells his story of being kicked out of the NHL for substance abuse, of “feeling emotionally, spiritually and physically dead.” He’s since found a new purpose in life, telling his story and helping others to find their own voices. This movement is about empowerment and stepping away from stigmas. As Fleury proudly states, it’s about “turning victims into victors.”

Before the gala screening on Friday, Lynch chatted with GigCity about the documentary and the desperate need for society to hear the voices of those abused.

GigCity: Why is this story so important to you?

Lynch: I grew up loving Theo Fleury as a kid. He was my hero. I connected with him as a young hockey player. I loved that not only could he score, but he was also great at fighting and hitting. There was an aggression about him that I connected with, that I could relate to. That’s what made him my favourite player, even though I’m a kid from Michigan who loves the Red Wings. When I finally read his book Playing with Fire that’s when I realized I had more in common with Theo then just hockey. I, too, am a Victor. Doing the walk, not just as a filmmaker, but as a Victor was important for me personally. I got to self reflect on how this past trauma affected how I behave around the people I love the most. I am the type of person who loves to continue to work on making myself a better person and to understand my flaws and work on them. Walking 25 miles a day gives you plenty of time to think, and all the stories that came to us on the walk gave me lots to digest.

GC: After learning Theo’s story, what compelled you to make a documentary?

Lynch: Initially I wrote a feature screenplay about Theo Fleury’s life that was pushed to the backburner. I stayed friends with Theo, and he told me about this Victor Walk he was doing. I pitched him the idea of me shooting the walk as a documentary, he jumped on the idea right away. Part of my pitch was telling him, “Maybe this is the most important thing in your life right now. Maybe this is the movie we need to do together.” The documentary happened because of my love of Theo Fleury, and wanting to tell his story.

GC: Often filmmakers enter a film intending to tell one story, only to discover another story. Did your thought process change throughout filming? Did your original message to the audience change?

Lynch: Our message never really changed. Our focus was on healing and pushing to create stronger laws. If anything when I first met Theo, he wanted to focus more on changing the laws. He soon saw how slow that process can be and filled with red tape. That’s when the focus shifted to healing, yes we want better laws, but what can we focus on right now that we can control. Healing. Working on ourselves.

GC: How was this film experience different than your previous work?

Lynch: This film was unlike anything I had done before, I was basically walking backwards shooting this entire film while Theo walked forwards talking to people. Physically and emotionally it’s one of the most challenging things I have done. Forty kilometers a day is a lot to do for 10 days in a row, while filming by myself. I had to be a one-man band. I had a Canon 7D, Go Pro and a zoom recorder with a lav, and a boom mic. At night I would dump all the footage onto hard drives, and charge the batteries. It was brutal. Thankfully once the documentary was shot, I had my producing partner Paul Gordon as our editor. We were able to team up and tear through the editing process.

GC: Directing tells a story, documentaries investigate stories -which do you prefer?

Lynch: I enjoy both narrative filmmaking and documentary filmmaking. I think both of them teach you different skills. I love how with documentaries we are investigating, uncovering and learning something new. It’s also a great opportunity to understand human nature and characters. Since in a documentary we are actually filming real people that can help when you are writing characters for your next script. I love them both and hope to continue to make both types of films.

GC: Why is filmmaking your favourite medium to tell stories?

Lynch: It’s one of the most collaborative mediums of art. I’m a hockey player, I love working as a team. I can’t draw or sing, wish I could do both! But with film, I’m allowed to collaborate with a storyboard artist, or poster artist, work with composers and musicians to find the right score/music for the film. To collaborate with actors, DP’s, Grips, Electrics, make up, hair, costumes, stunts, and so forth, it’s a great thing to be apart of a great team. It’s like NASCAR. A group of great folks with their specialties coming together to help one vision in the can. I enjoy how filmmaking can encompass all the arts. I love how filmmaking can teach, educate, inspire or transport and simply entertain. As a kid I loved being transported away with films like Richard Donner’s Superman, and of course the original Star Wars films. With documentaries we are able to share a side of life that people wouldn’t understand or know about if we weren’t there to film to and help share it with the world.

GC: What struggles did you encounter producing Victor Walk?

Lynch: We had almost no money and scraped by. Lucky I owned all the camera gear, the audio gear was a cheap rental. Hard Drives were one of the biggest expenses. Then digging through the footage to make sure we were creating an amazing film that would honour those in it and truly help those who need to see it, while allowing those that know nothing and haven’t been affected to be eye opened to it and get empathy.

GC: How inspiring was it to work with Theo?

Lynch: It was incredible to work with Theo. I’ll also never forget when I got to play hockey with him. It was a dream come true. It was also great to see how patient he is with everyone, even when some people can come off as pretty jerk-y type behaviour. There were moments where if I was in his shoes, because some people are so rude, I wouldn’t have signed an autograph, for example. It was inspiring to see that patience.

GC: What do you hope audiences gain by viewing this powerful film?

Lynch: I hope they gain a greater empathy for those victims that are struggling to become survivors then victors. It’s a journey and they need our support. I hope that those that have been affected by child sexual abuse see that they aren’t alone, they can heal and live a happy life. They can move forward without having to re-live the past over and over. Hopefully they can take some of the tools we give in the film to help them on their healing paths.

GC: Thank you for sharing your process and opening up to us. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Lynch: Everyone has trauma. How we choose to react to our trauma and how we choose to heal is important. I hope when people see the film they see there is a way to live a healthy non-toxic life and it is possible to move forward and not let the past define who we are. I hope this film inspires people to be the best self they can be.

Northwestfest (formerly known as the Global Visions Film Festival) continues until May 14.