By Charles Vanegas
Ryerson campus has a number of interesting characters – almost none as familiar as Marty Verlaan, better known as the “backwards walking guy.”
But few know Verlaan’s story – he has schizophrenia and has been walking backwards for the past 13 years. He is also the subject of The Vegetable Game, a documentary created by Ryerson film student Stephen Hosier.
In 2011, Hosier was looking to get ahead on his second-year documentary project. Needing a subject for a character profile, he approached Verlaan with his idea, asking how he could get in touch with him for future interviews.
“[He said] ‘meet at Tim Hortons any day of the year at ten o’clock and I’ll be there,'” says Hosier, now in fourth-year. “So second year rolls around… and I go to Tim Hortons at ten o’clock in the morning one day and sure enough, there is Marty.”
But after his initial two-hour interview, Hosier was so confused by Verlaan’s answers, which he could only describe as “bizarre,” that he seriously doubted the viability of the project.
Hosier sought the advice of his father, a psychotherapist with more than 30 years of experience working with mentally ill patients, before trying to decipher Verlaan’s quotes.
“I was listening through [the recording], just trying to find something in there. [Eventually] I started to figure out a bit of a story that was really hidden amongst all these bizarre and delusional comments that he was making,” says Hosier.
The Vegetable Game focuses on Verlaan’s past – his relationship with his parents, two ex-wives and five children – his daily routine, and of course, why he walks backwards.
“If someone approaches me on the street, like many policemen or many people on the street here [on Ryerson campus] have, I mostly tell them it’s a game,” he says in the film. “It’s not hard. The first two months are the hardest. After that you don’t know how long you’re going to be doing it.”
The Vegetable Game also looks at the various other “games” Verlaan plays, including the film title’s inspiration. According to Hosier, Verlaan refuses to eat vegetables or make right-hand turns, in fear that the hostel he lives in will turn off the heat.
While he admits that parts of his film are impossible to truly understand, Hosier hopes viewers will take a more positive approach to those dealing with mental illness.
“I want people to not just look at him as if [he] were some crazy guy on the street, but as someone who has a mom and a dad and comes from a family and has his own kids.”