“I’m very, very disappointed and the only thing that can make up for it?
Material goods and violence.”
I was nowhere near Vancouver when the 2011 Stanley Cup riots took place. At that time, I was a dedicated football fan living in Edmonton and could only shake my head in disbelief as disappointed hockey fans tore apart their city on the night of June 15, 2011 after the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7. The mess had long-since been cleaned up by the time I moved out to the west coast nearly two years later, but for those who had lived through the chaos, deep scars remained.
As the passing of time allowed for the fallout to settle and emotions to cool, a reappraisal of that night is long due and arrives in the form of I’m Just Here for the Riot, a documentary directed by the team of Kathleen Jayme (The Grizzlie Truth) and Asia Youngman and produced as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.
The film begins by recounting a Vancouver still awash in the afterglow of a successful winter Olympics and primed for a Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup victory over the Boston Bruins. Rogers Arena was packed and those who couldn’t fit inside jammed the surrounding streets to witness the game on multiple jumbotrons. Boston scored against Vancouver in the first period and the Canucks never recovered. The mood in the streets began to sour.
With their team being repeatedly humiliated on the ice and it becoming ever more evident that Vancouver would not be bringing their first Stanley Cup home, the disappointment began to ferment into frustration and that frustration into anger. Folks in the crowd began to look for targets to vent their anger against, anything. Boston Bruin fans, street furniture, vehicles….a store maybe?
No one knows who lit the first fire or smashed the first window pane, any more than we can know who cast the first rock at Stonewall. All we can be sure of is that the worst tribal instincts of humanity took over that night and before attending police could even begin to process the situation, windows were being smashed, stores were being looted, and cars set ablaze. The sort of unrest many had seen played on the news before, only not over deep-seated social injustice or a change in government. It was over a simple hockey game loss.
The crazy thing was that this sort of thing had happened before. Not only in Vancouver in 1994, but also in my hometown of Edmonton in 2006. This one felt different though. Not just in terms of scale, which captured worldwide media attention, but also in the fact that this may have been the first riot to be so extensively photographed and filmed. Due to the then-recent advent of smartphone technology, nearly everyone present had a video camera in their pocket. What’s more, they were more than willing to use them. Even more than that, rioters were willing to pose in front of their handiwork, displaying an almost animalistic zeal and pride in their destruction.
It all came back to bite them in the end. That mountain of video and stills made its way online, especially to Facebook where the Vancouver police promptly began to comb through the countless GB of data to identify and charge the people responsible for giving Vancouver this black eye on the world stage. The internet hive mind was only too happy to assist in this effort. But more than that, they were willing to both publicly shame and destroy the reputation of almost any individual unfortunate enough to be caught on camera, regardless of level of guilt.
I’m Just Here for the Riot chronicles the above story through both the aforementioned video evidence and extensive interviews with those who lived through the night, including several of the perpetrators. The latter are the most interesting as even years later, they struggle to explain exactly why they did what they did, whether it was smash windows, steal from luxury boutiques or simply egg on the surrounding mayhem. Most can only chalk it up to a mix of youthful ignorance mixed with alcohol and a sort of animalistic tribalism that sparked within.
Others don’t see these explanations as valid excuses though as the film also interviews those who did their best to stop or deter the chaos around them, including two men who rescued another from a brutal swarming after he attempted to prevent a store window from being smashed. Sports reporters, police, and authors all offer their own theories on why this riot happened and a documentary filmmaker even wonders if his very presence as a cameraman contributed to or shaped the riot in some way.
The most interesting section of the doc deals with the social media backlash that the rioters face, The legal ramifications are barely touched upon as many of the subjects feel they were treated much less harshly by the judiciary than by an angry general public frothing at the mouth behind their keyboards. Most of these subjects were in University or finishing high school, young adults just beginning their lives and unsure how to deal with the torrent of verbal and text abuse they and even their families were getting. It was cancel culture before we even had words for it.
Jayme and Youngman cover their subject well in the docs’s scant 77-minute runtime. All the hallmarks of a well-made documentary are here: ample well-shot interviews, generous b-roll, illustrative graphics, and well-edited archive footage. The result is slickly produced and easily digestible while offering plenty of nutritional brain food for thought.
In the end, the only real criticism I can level at this doc is its brevity. This was likely a result of limitations imposed by the sponsoring network, but a subject this complex and fascinating really deserves its own mini-series or at minimum a two hour treatment. Ultimately, Riot holds up a stark mirror to hockey fans and Canada at large and challenges us to ponder whether we’ve really learned anything from the fallout or whether history is doomed to repeat the next time the Canucks make it to Game 7.
I’m Just Here for the Riot screens as part of VIFF on Mon Oct 2, 6:30pm @ Vancouver Playhouse