(David Christensen, Canada/Italy). 85 minutes. Subtitled. Rating: The tiny village of Viganella sits in a valley in the Italian Alps, leaving it without sunlight 83 days of each winter. The sunstarved townsfolk attempt to install a giant mirror to reflect light into the town square, but run into unexpected setbacks. David Christensen, director of underrated Canadian thriller Six Figures, captures all that and sticks around to take a lovely snapshot of the rhythms of small-town life – with helicopters and giant mirrors. (George Tsioutsioulas, Canada). 85 minutes. Friday (April 30), 7:30 pm, Royal; May 9, 1:30 pm, Cumberland 3. Rating: Pete Czerwinski spends a lot of time stuffing his face. Hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken wings, very large steaks – that’s his thing, as his website and YouTube posts will attest. He’s a champion competitive eater – and a former anorexic.
The contradictions in Czerwinski’s story attracted Toronto TV host and producer George Tsioutsioulas, who was looking for a feature-length documentary project to tackle with his producing partner, Igal Hecht. The result is The Story Of Furious Pete, making its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs and bringing the world of competitive eating to the big screen.
“Have you ever seen a contest?” Tsioustioulas asks when he and Czerwinski meet me for lunch on the patio at Caplansky’s Delicatessen.
“It’s crazy, bizarre, funny and surreal. I knew I wanted to make a documentary on competitive eating – I just didn’t know exactly what it would be about. I was looking for a Canadian competitive eater, and then I came across Pete and his exploits and realized he’s definitely one of the best out there. Then, when I found out a little more about his story, I realized that there’s more to him than competitive eating.”
Fortunately, Czerwinski was receptive to the idea.
“There were some psychos out there,” he explains, making short work of a smoked turkey sandwich. “They kept asking to do some filming or whatever, but they never had a plan – I don’t know, I guess they just wanted to make a buck or two here and there and not tell the story like it’s supposed to be told. George had a plan.”
The next step was figuring out how much of Pete’s story to tell.
“Pete was pretty good,” Tsioutsioulas says. “I don’t think anything was off limits. Probably some people wouldn’t be open to sharing their story, but I think Pete wants to.”
The trick was digging deep, and that’s where things get a little problematic. Czerwin- ski’s not reluctant to tell his story, but he’s not big on going beyond generalizations. He’ll talk about being forced into Sick Kids’ anorexia ward at 17, but only in the most general way.
“I just kept losing more and more weight,” he says, “and I hadn’t been to the doctor in quite some time. My mom booked me an appointment and I said, ‘Okay, fine, I’ll go.’ The second I walked in, the doctor told my mom I needed to go to Sick Kids Hospital right away.”
“Pete’s very nonchalant,” Tsioutsioulas explains. “It was hard to understand from him how serious things were. I knew he’d gone through something heavy, but I never realized how heavy it was just from talking to him. It became more real once I sat down with his parents. One of the first questions I asked his mother was ‘ What do you remember most about 2002?’ And she broke down. It was very real for them.” (George Tsioutsioulas) Rating: Tsioutsioulas’s portrait of Pete Czerwinski – an anorexic turned competitive eater and fitness enthusiast – walks a fine line between encouraging viewers to goggle at the sheer spectacle of what Czerwinski does and trying to figure out why he does it.
The doc never comes up with an answer because Czerwinski doesn’t seem to have one himself. He’s not big on introspection and seems reluctant to discuss either his psychology or his physiology, preferring to just go ahead and do what he does – and put the videos up on YouTube – without thinking too much about it. He’s much more willing to talk about his mother’s battle with multiple sclerosis and his dedication to raising money for MS research.
Maybe Czerwinski’s attitude is essential to bouncing back from something as debilitating as anorexia, but you come away wishing Tsioutsioulas had pressed him a little harder.
Pete’s relationship with his mother became the backbone of the film. She has multiple sclerosis, and he enters contests to raise money for MS research.
“That’s definitely one of my drives,” he says, “just to raise awareness for it. And obviously, eating disorders were a big drive as well, to show people that there is hope.”
It could be argued that Pete’s just shifted his control issues in a different direction – and possibly a healthier one. He’s become fanatical about working out, which offsets potential damage from his gorging sprees.
“We went to a gastroenterologist in the film,” Tsioutsioulas says, “totally expecting him to run though all the risks and the dangers of doing this. But more than anything, he was in awe. He didn’t think there was anything to worry about if [Pete] doesn’t do it every day, aside from choking. Choking was the main thing he talked about. Or biting your finger off, which you’ve done a couple of times.”
“I did,” Czerwinski says, laughing. “I just get really aggressive; I just keep shovelling food in, and I guess my jaw’s moving fast enough that I don’t realize my finger’s in there.”
Audiences may not want to spend any more time on Pete’s inner workings than he does himself. They’ll come for the eating and stay straight through the end credits, where Czerwinski eats a 72-ounce steak in a single seven-minute take. Tsioutsioulas calls it the movie’s money shot.
“Throughout the documentary there are little snapshots here and there,” he says, “but I wanted to let that roll from beginning to end to show there are no special effects.”
But does Czerwinski actually enjoy it? Is there any pleasure in gobbling down a steam tray’s worth of hot dogs?
“I treat it like a sport,” he says. “Taste is not an issue; you turn that switch off. It’s not fun dunking food in water and then eating it.”
Can he turn the switch back on and actually enjoy food?
“Of course. I mean, I enjoyed this sandwich,” he says, gesturing to his empty plate. “But during a contest you don’t want to taste it. You just want it to go down quickly. If you’re tasting it, you’re eating too slow.”