(KinoFilm European Short Film Festival, Manchester)
I first visited Hebden Bridge 20 years ago, and was captivated by its gothic remoteness and Victorian charm. Its plethora of book, record and junk shops didn’t hurt either, and I’ve been drawn back to the town every year or two since. If it hadn’t been so distant from jobs, family and friends I would probably have moved there.
My last visit 18 months ago was my first for a couple of years, and I was sorry to see that creeping yuppification had almost overcome the ramshackle hippiness I first loved. My favourite book- and junk shops had been replaced by expensive jewellers and ethical clothing; it was all a bit Notting Hill.
It was my sadness at this change that took me to see Shed your Tears and Walk Away, a feature-length documentary by former resident Jez Lewis. Having grown up in the town he had been inspired to make a short film about native Hebdeners, after returning for the latest in a succession of friends’ funerals.
What he discovered puts the loss of my favoured shops into clear perspective.
Filming in the town’s central park Lewis introduces Sillie and Cass, who drink Special Brew there all day with their friends. So far, so rite of passage, but this pair are not in their early teens, they’re in their early 40s.
The teens are there too, though. The park is home to a touching extended family both adopted and actual, Cass proudly introducing his step-son and his girlfriend among the group. This shortly after telling Lewis that his drinking is making him gravely ill, and that – despite his large, distended stomach – he can no longer eat.
During the film-maker’s visit, another young local lad dies of a drink and drug overdose. Sam Jones’ body is found close to the main tourist square, his mother distraught that she was too concerned with her other son’s heroin addiction to recognise his problems. Brother Liam is shown confused, angry and swearing off heroin for life; the park-group rallies round and Lewis knows there is a bigger story to tell.
Over the next two years he returns regularly to the town, getting to know and be trusted by the group. We learn that Sillie’s brother committed suicide, and of the Foreign Legion experiences he seeks refuge from in drink. Cass too has a troubled background, his father having died when he was seven, and both struggled with heroin addiction when younger.
More young people die, be it by overdose or suicide, but there is little change in the pervading lifestyle.
In a moving piece to camera Sillie, once a leading sportsman and still a keen cyclist despite his constant drinking, spells out the situation for many Hebden natives. They have been made aliens in their own town, their faces no longer fit for any but the most unskilled jobs, of which there are few. Priced out of the housing market they have become an underclass in their home town, which traps them with its remote, valley-bottom location.
What starts out as a Louis Theroux-type approach to participatory documentary quickly becomes much more, as Lewis becomes personally concerned with and even responsible for his subjects’ welfare. It is he who delivers Cass to a local rehab centre, after tearful goodbyes with his friends. When he later decides to make a more serious attempt, and it is Lewis who takes him to a centre in London where he might stand a better chance.
The most uplifting section of the film is Cass’s time there, his remoteness from the group enabling him to make a serious bid for sobriety as he enjoys the capital’s tourist treats. His progress is tragically juxtaposed with Sillie’s descent into uncontrollable drinking back in Hebden, the humour and sporting physique seen at the film’s outset a distant memory.
Cass’s return to Hebden makes for some of the film’s toughest viewing, especially combined with Lewis’s concern and some heart-breaking footage of Sillie’s fiancee Di. What should have been an important day for her ends with Special Brew swigged at the bus stop; head in hands she grows silent, and tears are seen streaming down her cheeks.
If the film made me glad not to have contributed to the bourgeois colonisation of Hebden I felt guilty even to be watching it, ostensibly for entertainment, at an art-house film festival. Yet this highly affecting film has to be seen. In his post-screening Q&A Jez Lewis expressed his view that the drink, drug and suicide problems of disaffected townspeople were being swept under the carpet by a place intent on tourism and gentrification, a view vehemently agreed with by the band of Hebdeners at the back of the cinema.
Struggling to suppress his emotion Lewis announced that another young woman had been found dead at a bus stop in neighbouring Mytholmroyd that day, and a visit to the town’s website revealed that Sam Jones’ brother Liam, seen grieving in the film, is also now dead. I have no idea how selective the film-maker was in his portrayal of Hebden people, and his own experience of 13 friends’ deaths there clearly motivated his work, but this tourist’s view of the apparent Yorkshire idyll has been forever changed.