On December 10, 1997, the day after what would remain one of the most transformative moments in wrestling history, Bret Hart fumed, while Paul Jay, the documentarian who had been with him for several months, smiled.
“Paul told me: ‘You won’t believe how much I captured everything,’” recalls the legendary Canadian wrestler in an interview with La Presse. I felt like there was no way my side of the story could be told well enough for everyone to understand what happened to me. I was afraid no one would believe me. And when I saw the first cut of the film, I was blown away. Paul was right: he had it all. »
What did Paul Jay know about wrestling before he began filming the documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998), which celebrated its 25th anniversary on December 20? “I had as much knowledge about the world of wrestling as I had about the Moon,” replies the journalist whose previous film, Never-Endum Referendum, focused on the 1995 Quebec referendum.
Why then devote so much energy to this universe? It was because in a short time, the Toronto director had come across an interview given by Bret Hart in Germany – “He was one of the best-known Canadians abroad, but the majority of Canadians did not know him” – as well as Roland Barthes’s essential essay The World Where We Catch (1957). The French semiologist observes that “wrestling participates in the nature of great solar spectacles – Greek theater and bull races: here and there, a light without shadow develops an emotion without withdrawal. »
This is what inspired Paul Jay to write the title of his film, in which Bret Hart fights not only against adversaries like the hunky Shawn Michaels and the miscreant Steve Austin, but above all against the darkest parts of his industry.
“It’s a film that is difficult to watch again, because it brings up all kinds of more or less pleasant emotions,” confides the Hitman, now 66 years old. But I remain proud of the righteousness that I displayed at this moment in my career when I was facing opposing forces and during which I was duped and lied to. »
In 1997, Bret Hart was one of the biggest stars in what was then called the WWF. However, nothing is looking good in his heart, a substantial offer from the rival company, WCW, fueling a heartbreaking conflict of loyalty within him. The omnipotent boss of the WWF, Vince McMahon, will decide for him, choosing to let him go to the competition, which ultimately seemed to suit him.
But on November 9, 1997, at the Molson Center, despite McMahon’s assurance that he could have control over the outcome of his final match, which was stipulated in his contract, Hart was stripped of his championship belt, and his smiling candor, as the referee rings the bell while his sworn enemy, Shawn Michaels, gives him his own finishing hold. A conclusion to which Bret had not agreed. A conclusion which could not go further against the code of honor of wrestlers.
Until then, few documentaries on wrestling had shown the other side of the curtain to this extent, which is now almost commonplace. This room for maneuver, Vince McMahon had granted to Bret like a kind of nonsense, during one of their discussions around his contract.
“And I had a verbal understanding with Paul that if there was anything that I wasn’t comfortable with, that didn’t portray wrestling in a favorable light, it could be removed », specifies Hart. Coming from a Calgary wrestling dynasty, Bret had been hammered home since childhood that the predetermined nature of spectator sports had to be silenced, at all costs. “I think Vince figured I was too old school, too protective of the industry to want to talk publicly about what they decided to do to me in Montreal. »
Vince McMahon couldn’t have been more wrong. After the incident, “Bret was so angry,” Paul Jay recalls, “that he said to me, ‘Show what you want, I don’t care!’” »
Bret’s only regret, punching his employer in the face minutes after the ScrewJob? “I shouldn’t have chased Paul and his team out of the locker room before getting knocked out. to Vince. »
Aware that the world of wrestling could serve as a metaphor for him, Paul Jay was very adept at highlighting all the power concentrated in the hands of Vince McMahon, whom Bret describes in voiceover as a “father figure”, an expression used over the years by many stars.
Did the founder of the most lucrative wrestling company in the world exploit the debt his charges believed they owed him? On the other end of the line, Bret laughs softly. “I mean… sure! We can compare him to a father, but I would also compare him to God. Vince could look at you one day and decide to change your life…and your life really did change. I was his favorite student for a long time. I felt like I owed him everything, that’s why I was loyal to him. »
“And that’s why the film reached people who aren’t interested in wrestling,” thinks Paul Jay. He pits someone like Vince, who only thinks about money, against someone like Bret, who sticks to his values. He asks the question: is it naive to hold on to your values? »
Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, Jim Neidhart. Painful observation when rewatching Wrestling with Shadows: of all the members of the Hart Foundation, his clan on screen and in everyday life, Bret Hart is the only one who has not crossed over to the other side. Long silence on the line.
“I think about Owen every day,” he says of his late younger brother, who died at age 34 in 1999 following a tragic accident at a WWE gala. “Owen was very good at trick shots, and today if I can’t find my phone or forget my keys in my car with the doors locked, I feel like it’s Owen pulling my ear. »
“I always believed that the ScrewJob and Owen’s death led to my stroke,” he continues of his serious health problems in 2002. “And the truth is, at that time, I carried a lot of bad energy, dark and angry thoughts, and I had to work to get rid of them. »
Bret Hart is therefore rather at peace with his past and flattered to still be among the wrestlers most revered by those who imagine the present of wrestling.
“My plan is to live to be at least 100 years old,” he promises. I want to live each of the days that will be given to me in the name of all these friends whose journey was interrupted too soon. Living as fully as possible is my way of paying homage to them. »