Hebden Bridge was once the destination of choice for hippies and new-agers in the 1970s who found themselves attracted by its serenity and picturesque surroundings. Fast-forward 40 years and the small Yorkshire market town has acquired a darker, more fatalistic atmosphere that has witnessed several of first time director Jez Lewis’ friends committing suicide or dying from drug overdoses.
Shot on a single handheld digital camera, Lewis’ documentary acts as both a moving case study of the ravaging effects of addiction and a portrait of a town unable – or unwilling – to address the serious problems that threaten the young lives that run in direct parallel to its tranquil surface image. One interviewee describes Hebden Bridge as a “drug town with a tourist problem”, a not entirely inaccurate observation judging by Lewis’ film which frequently captures scenes of binge drinking and drug abuse taking place often just meters away from a group of local pensioners playing pentaque or within ear shot of a cultural attraction. Both worlds co-exist relatively peacefully either through ignoring one another or managing to somehow remain oblivious.
Lewis devotes the vast majority of his attention towards his old school friend Cass, a jobless alcoholic who wiles away the day drinking with friends at ‘Idiots’ Corner’ – a bench in the park where other addicts congregate to indulge their habits. Surrounding Cass are a menagerie of lost souls who are either unemployed or otherwise completely disenfranchised. One of these men is Silly, a former soldier of the French foreign legion who, like Cass, has lived in Hebden all of his life and provides many of the film’s most poignant insights. Discussing his former career, which led to him fighting in vicious wars as far away as Somalia, Silly confesses through years of suppressed tears that since quitting heroin he has been confronted by horrific memories every day of his life. When Silly eventually relapses it seems inevitable given his lack of psychological counselling or an effective method for coping that doesn’t involve substance abuse.
Issues of gentrification and the rising number of unemployed – that have seen many ordinary Hebdenites sidelined from their own town – also simmer beneath the surface, firmly placing the film within the boundaries of debate surrounding ‘Broken Britain’. Hebden appears to embody all of these problems and paints an ominous picture of a lost generation that society is cruelly letting slip off the radar.
Shed Your Tears & Walk Away is best encapsulated by Lewis’ observation of the dynamic underlying life in Hebden: for many it is a country idyll, for others it’s a purgatory. Some may wish to take this statement further and conclude that for the marginalised in society battling with addiction in a town with very few prospects or opportunities for self-improvement, life may indeed be closer to Hell.