Few Canadian films have captured the power of raw, youthful artistic expression in the same way as Charles Officer’s moving documentary Unarmed Verses. A perfect marriage of a filmmaker with topical subject matter and an even more exceptional main subject, Unarmed Verses is a slice-of-Toronto-life that will make viewers think twice about the talents of young people and the true value of their neighbourhoods and communities.
12-year-old Grade 8 student Francine Valentine lives with her Antiguan father and 84-year old grandmother in Villaways, a neighbourhood in the Leslie and Nymark area that has been slated for demolition by a megacorporation intending to build brand new condos and townhouses that the current residents of the area will likely never be able to afford. Amid her family’s uncertain living situation, Francine participates in a music making program at a community centre, an outlet that puts her critical thinking and literary skills to perfect use despite her naturally shy demeanour.
From the opening moments of Unarmed Verses, where Francine delivers a literary analysis of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat” better than most adults I know, it’s clear that the viewer is in good hands. Officer places emphasis here on what someone like Francine can mean to a community like Villaways, and what such a community gives back to her. Villaways, as it’s depicted by Officer, isn’t a bad place to live, but rather one that privileged, largely white outsiders see as land that’s not living up to its full potential.
Officer counters by showcasing Francine perfectly and suggesting that plenty of great things can come from such an unassuming location if people stopped trying to make money and invested in genuine future potential instead. Potential means lots of different things, and Officer wants to make sure that in a city overrun by development and a hot housing market that people don’t lose sight of the human side of things.