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  November 5, 1999

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Owen's special life

By TYLER MCLEOD -- Calgary Sun

OWEN Paul Jay has made documentaries about Quebec separation, socialism in Albania and the origin of human language.

"We do an array of different shows -- wrestling is just one theme we're exploring," says Jay, founder of High Road Productions.

The company produces CBC Newsworld's debate show Counterspin (6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday on channel 15). Discovery Channel is currently airing its three-part documentary, Machine Gun. (Part 1 tomorrow at 4 p.m.; Part 2 on Monday at 8 p.m.; Part 3 Nov. 13 at 4 p.m. on channel 35.)

Yet the documentary filmmaker's most acclaimed film to date is Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows.

Interest is equally high for The Life and Death of Owen Hart, airing at 9 p.m. on channel 8 tomorrow night and Nov. 16 on channel 26.

"We knew (Hitman) was good -- you always hope you'll get a good reaction -- but it went through the roof. It was almost unprecedented for a documentary," Jay recalls.

Perhaps it was his investigative eye which turned a straightforward look at local wrestling star Bret Hart into a revealing expose of the high-stakes wrestling industry.

Jay knew something was up when the reviews started coming back from across Canada.

"There's a lot of pretty hard reviewers here, especially in Toronto -- including a couple who have a reputation for not liking anything," he says.

The film eventually aired on A&E, is debuting on the BBC tomorrow night, had a healthy video release and inspired a music CD.

"I think it hit its peak when we found out we were going to be a feature segment on Entertainment Tonight," says Sally Blake, co-director and producer of Owen Hart.

"It's kind of a kick for a little Canadian documentary to be on Entertainment Tonight."

"The other thing that was fun was the reviews we got in the States," Jay says. "We got these rave reviews in wrestling magazines, then it got raves in the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. It was the range of acceptance that was exciting."

Despite the success of Hitman Hart and the fact "you could do a weekly series on the Hart family," according to Jay, there were no plans or a followup to the award-winning documentary.

But everything can change in an instant.

On May 23 of this year, Owen Hart, the youngest son of Stu and Helen Hart, was appearing at a WWF pay-per-view event in Kansas City. He was to be lowered from the rafters of Kemper Arena in a stunt meant to parody another wrestler in the ongoing WWF/WCW feud.

Hart's high-wire harness released prematurely, causing a fatal 21-metre fall.

"The truth is, we didn't really know Owen that well," Jay says. "We had this long interview with him for the other film and hadn't used it. It just hit me a couple of days ago why we didn't get to know him: Because he wasn't around," he says.

"The other guys hung around having a beer or whatever, but we didn't have much opportunity to get to know him. Wrestling was just a job to him. The moment his role in the night's show was over, he disappeared and went back to his hotel room to call Martha."

The Life and Death of Owen Hart shows Hart as a devoted family man. The filmmakers were allowed access to personal photos and home movies from Martha, Hart's wife of 10 years.

"Sometimes, you have to take a lot of breaks when you're doing these ... sometimes even do them over a matter of days because it's too hard to talk about it," Blake says of documenting such tragic experiences.

Jay says such interviews are often helpful for the subjects.

"Sometimes it's a catharsis for the people you interview. It's the process of having a really focused listener -- for some reason an interviewer and camera does that."

Other times, a story just needs to be told.

"We did an interview with Mick Foley (a.k.a. Mankind) and he actually travelled to meet us in Windsor because it meant a lot to him," says Blake. "He was very close to Owen and emotionally wounded by his death."

Jay and Blake report Foley did not hold back, despite the fact he still works for the WWF. Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows wasn't exactly a glowing endorsement of the World Wrestling Federation and paints a less-than-favourable portrait of boss Vince McMahon.

"We asked Vince for an interview and he declined because of the pending litigation," Jay says. "I think everybody on all sides -- including the WWF -- knows it was tragic. They said they thought a film celebrating Owen was a worthwhile endeavour."

While the events of May 23 are still being debated, the death of Owen Hart is only part of the story told in The Life and Death of Owen Hart.

"Obviously there's a disagreement over how the accident happened," Jay says. "In terms of the life of Owen and how special he was? I don't think anyone disagrees."

More on Owen Hart