Filmmaker Charles Officer is no stranger to films dealing with major issues of relevance to the City of Toronto, and to Canada on the whole, but his documentary Unarmed Verses, which made its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this week, might be his most his most timely and relevant work to date, one that hopefully acts as a wake up and call to arms to protect the most vulnerable people in marginalized neighbourhoods amid an unprecedented and skyrocketing housing boom.
Unarmed Verses looks at the endangered community of Villaways through the eyes of 12-year old, grade eight student Francine Valentine. Living with her Antiguan father and 84-year old grandmother, Francine has become enrolled in a young adult music and arts program in the sometimes unjustly maligned Leslie and Nymark neighbourhood’s recreational centre. Francine, and many other teens in the program, are kids that any neighbourhood would be happy to have, and the program fosters their immense creativity and budding intelligence. But just outside the rec centre, Villaways has been slated for redevelopment by a major corporation, and area residents are forced into the position of being relocated before the city has even approved the motion to develop on the land. Residents have the chance to return to the new condos about to be built, but they’re likely to be so expensive and hard to come by, that such dreams of returning to their new neighbourhood are lofty at best.
Officer, who grew up in Regent Park and around Toronto’s east side dreaming of being a professional hockey player or an architect, recently moved back to the neighbourhood he first grew up in when he noticed that gentrification was making things harder on people already living there and that a sense of culture was being lost. Although he didn’t live anywhere near Villaways, he understood the plight of families like Francine’s, and he could notice such changes occurring throughout the city. Even he lives in fear that he might someday not be able to afford to live in Regent Park, so the underlying themes of displacement coupled with Francine’s immense talent as a budding poet and writer immediately made Officer want to make a film within the community.
We sat down with Charles Officer over coffee the day before Hot Docs started at the downtown Toronto offices of the National Film Board to talk about Francine, Villaways, and the timely nature of Unarmed Verses.
The opening scene of Unarmed Verses is just incredible and so simple. It’s just Francine looking over the first page of Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Black Cat and just breaking it down and analyzing it better than most adults I know could. When did that happen during the shoot, and did you know immediately that this was how you wanted to introduce this really special teenage girl to the audience?
Charles Officer: It happened very early on the shoot, and mind you, she had just turned twelve when I started shooting this; now she’s fourteen. When I was first watching her while trying to decide who it was I was going to focus on, I brought a group of those kids to the NFB to do an animation workshop. They were broken up into groups, and Francine was in a group, and this little girl was on her knees for an hour and a half. She didn’t even feel the pain of that because she was so into the work. She was working everything out and doing all this stuff to a point where everyone in her group was sort of just laying back and just watching her.
Her focus was insane, but when she talked to people, she was always so quiet, almost a whisper. I got to know her before I really started shooting mostly with her. I had filmed a bit of the music program that you see in the film, and I had filmed a bit with her doing her homework. The first time I saw her doing her homework, she was doing French, and that didn’t make it into the film, but that scene was mind blowing, too. (laughs) The scene at the beginning of the film was the first day I actually filmed at her house. She said she had homework to do, and I told her just to carry on.
“When it came to these neighbourhood consultations, if some of these kids were seen as real people with real concerns, then maybe the Tridels of the world, or Toronto Community Housing, or the developers would hold sessions with them.”
She brought out her books and everything, and literally she just got into it like we weren’t even there. I was listening to her, and I was just blown away thinking about how she was just working all this stuff out. She’s talking and looking up, and I’m over on the other side of the room so I’m out of the camera’s way, and she’s just looking at the camera, and not at me. She’s just talking it out and thinking, and she’s just moving from thought to thought, and I knew from that moment that this was going to be the opening scene.
That’s really the luck of the film gods, and of a person who just had this kind of public sort of solitude to just go into figuring something out. She wasn’t playing to the camera or censoring herself. She was just into the work. That’s when I realized how much she loves poetry and breaking things down. I know I wasn’t even reading Poe when I was twelve. Are you kidding me? (laughs) I couldn’t articulate CLOSE to what she was doing until I was at least twenty. She was pulling out all these metaphors, and constructing her own because there’s this little black girl talking about a black cat, and then she’s going on to talking about family and how you’re supposed to love family. All these things that she’s working out are happening while all her cousins are just in there goofing around. Where she lives, there’s not a quiet, private moment in her life. There’s always something. When I saw her do that, even my cinematographer was looking at me and we couldn’t believe she was doing this. It was amazing, but I knew really soon that this was it. My cinematographer, Michael McLaughlin, and our producer, Lea Marin, both saw that and knew it had to be the opening, too.
This film was actually commissioned to be a short piece and moments like that with Francine helped extend the project. By the sixth day of shooting – and we didn’t have a long shooting schedule – even our editor had seen what we had and said, “Dude, you’ve got a lot of amazing stuff here.”Lea came in and she knew right away, and started going through the channels to get more time for us, and within a week of us filming that we were called in to do a presentation. We just said that we were not going to do this community and this young girl justice in a short film. There was just way too much that she has to experience and go through. I thought she could speak on behalf of this community, and eventually everyone agreed. But that one scene, across the board with everyone we talked to, was what convinced everyone that we needed to go further.
Throughout the film, you can see that she understands context and everything that’s said better than most people I know. It’s been such an amazing experience to watch her grow. Now she goes to one of the best art schools in the city. I was with her two weeks ago, and she was just telling me about all these classes that she’s taking and she’s learning about all these different kinds of art, but it was all the stuff that she made through this program that got her into this school. And there are more people like her living there, and the heartbreaking part for me is that there were kids younger than Francine that she was nurturing and encouraging in her time at Villaways, and then they all got disbanded.
What’s it like looking at a community that’s being forced out and essentially dying through the eyes of the young people who live there?
Charles Officer: I feel like, obviously, they’re the future. They are the next generation that will lead, make, decisions, and do things. I’m tired of hearing the quote-unquote “experts.” I’m tired of hearing statistics. We hear all of them, but they still don’t motivate us enough to make change. We’re aware of stuff, and the evidence is all there, but to hear from these perspectives and through their voices was always a decision from the get-go. Adults in this film only have a presence in this movie if they’re helping one of the younger ones or if they’re providing context.
Again, when you’re young and in that transitional space, your opinions often aren’t taken into consideration. When it came to these neighbourhood consultations, if some of these kids were seen as real people with real concerns, then maybe the Tridels of the world, or Toronto Community Housing, or the developers would hold sessions with them. They wouldn’t only invite the parents, but actually talk to the youth.
“Tridel and Toronto Community Housing stand to make upwards of a hundred million dollars from getting this area redeveloped, so what do they have in place to get the community back to where it existed? Have they even thought about affordable housing? There’s zero thought put into these things.”
Francine, who is a shy, young, black woman, gets overlooked all the time. Look what she has to offer, though. And there are more like here there. Where’s that place of comfort for them where they can get some guidance and a little bit of opportunity? There are always people who are hungry to try something new and challenging, but we still have to create those opportunities.
But even their rec centre is just a repurposed townhouse. When you hear the term “rec centre,” you might think there’s a basketball court somewhere or maybe a pool or a library or something, but really these kids are just walking up a laneway to another townhouse. The amazing thing is that, I do come from a place where we used to create things from band-aids, scotch tape, and sticks, and I’ve always plied that to filmmaking, and that’s exactly what these unsung heroes are doing in this community for these kids.
But there were also two incidents involving young people in the three years that I ended up working in that community where the police showed up, and those stories made the news. Other than that, you never heard about this community. Nothing else was newsworthy stuff. Who wants to hear a news story about this young, thirteen year-old kid succeeding or taking a stand at a community council meeting?
A lot of the neighbourhood consultation meetings regarding the relocation of Villaways residents aren’t really consultations, and that’s something you capture really well. Everything is so blunt and there’s no room for discussion. Even though you started filming this neighbourhood before city council approved the redevelopment of the neighbourhood, everyone talked and acted like things were a done deal and that nothing could be done to fight this. Was that shocking for you to witness?
Charles Officer: Isn’t that amazing? “This hasn’t been approved yet, but you’re moving out!” It’s a done deal. They don’t give you the opportunity to rebut things. You ask a question, you get told an answer. If you want to move back there when this development is done years later, you gotta pick from a lottery, and if you pick number 199, what’s left for you? You have no control over where you’re going to go, what your job is, where you go to school, all these sort of things have to be reoriented in every way. Even us in this room as sort of middle class, surviving people know that moving of any kind is a big friggin’ deal.
What do the people who need the most help do? Like Ryan, who’s adult and autistic and was basically adopted by Francine’s grandmother. He was working in the neighbourhood. He was actually able to get a job and get his own place. It’s hard for someone like him to get a job, but he found someone who would hire him as a cook. He was independent, but now he has to build a new sense of trust in a whole new place, and that societal ridicule for being different could start all over again. He was in a safe community where everyone knew and loved him. Folks seem to miss these kinds of things when they start thinking about progress without thinking about what it means to the people who live in a neighbourhood like this.
And if developers find a community like Villaways, which is kind of off the beaten path and nestled between some really nice neighbourhoods, they know they can make it disappear easier. If someone tried developing something similar in say Rexdale or along Lawrence West, the community would immediately be up in arms. There would be so much noise that we would hear about it on the news, but with Villaways they could be like this place never existed. They could make it disappear.
Tridel and Toronto Community Housing stand to make upwards of a hundred million dollars from getting this area redeveloped, so what do they have in place to get the community back to where it existed? Have they even thought about affordable housing? There’s zero thought put into these things. They just erase the whole thing. There’s over 540 market ready condos that are going to be build on a land that previously house 120 or so units. These people who are leaving aren’t going to be able to come back, see a few units, and pick where they want to live. They have to maintain certain criteria to even stay with Toronto Community Housing, let alone try to get into some of these units that are planned to be built there. There was this pitch to the residents that wasn’t in the film where they were told they could put some money down and get a chance at one of these units. Dude, in this day and age, 5% down on a mortgage isn’t going to cut it with bankers if you were already living in a community like this. You would be better off just putting that money in a bank account and doing nothing with it. The way this is being presented by them by saying “you can do this” is so misleading. The disparity is mindboggling to me.
“I really don’t want the conversation of this film to be centred entirely around, “Oh, look at these poor kids and how they get bounced around” and so on and so forth. They’re not treating themselves as poor kids. That’s their reality, and they’re trying to move on and deal with it.”
We hear slogans in Canada about how diversity is our strength, and our Prime Minister says how great that is, and to some degree we are. I am one of those success stories, I guess, where my parents came over here and somehow I found my way through some things, but I am a lucky one. Toronto’s a bit of a bubble. We talk about this place of amazing tolerance, but even with our filmmaking system, we have to make pledges and new mandates to make sure we’re more aware of diversity. Why should we be making these pledges if we’re on this cusp of being an ideal country? It’s because we didn’t do it to begin with, and we’ve just been saying it. They become boxes to get checked off on a list instead of something organically in our stream of consciousness.
And I want these young folks to see this, especially if they’re getting moved around, and they feel like they have little agency because they have less financial status. We watch fairy tales as kids, and we talk about stories about prices and paupers, and were led to believe that we can overcome everything that we put our minds to, but the day-to-day of living is tough. You can do it, but you need a lot to go your way and you always need someone to help you, guide you, or set you on that path.
This is a film that’s premiering at a perfect time in Toronto, especially given the current state of the housing market in the city. We have politicians throwing out buzzworthy terms like “foreign buyers’ tax” and “rent control reform,” but none of these concepts will help people in communities like Villaways to save their homes or bring the price of anything down in any real way. Did you realize when you set out to make this film how relevant and timely it would become when you were done with it and how much worse things were going to get?
Charles Officer: I’ve never had a film in my career that unfolded kind of like this one was, and it sounds weird to say that it was a lucky situation that things lined up how they are. I love that you said that about the foreign buyers’ tax because that’s still not going to change the price of anything. You need to blame it on someone, so blame it on foreign rich people, which is something that they think everyone will understand. What about the wealthy people who are already here in Canada that will just buy these properties, lands, and homes for the same reasons? We are literally gouging people just so they can live. The system has moved in such a way that people will never get out of the quote-unquote “ghetto.” This will just push people to places of desperation. What do you have to do now?
I really don’t want the conversation of this film to be centred entirely around, “Oh, look at these poor kids and how they get bounced around” and so on and so forth. They’re not treating themselves as poor kids. That’s their reality, and they’re trying to move on and deal with it. The large question towards our developers, city planners, and politicians are if we’ve considered that the people who are already here have to live in places like this. We spend so much time thinking of structures, economics, and how much money can be made. Even hearing Kathleen Wynne saying that she wants to see people buying places because they want to live in them is really disingenuous. What about all the neighbourhoods rich people don’t want to live in? What about all these properties that have been boarded up for decades because the owners are waiting for someone to come knocking with a big payday for them to sell? It’s outrageous how all of this is happening with grown adults with educations who claim to know a lot about economics, but think little about anything else.
I’m not saying that you can’t create a level playing field or make a profit, but it’s like Dave Chapelle once said: “There’s a number in your head, and when you hit that number why the f**k do you need more?” What comes after that? What’s the attachment to making more? Why do we need to accumulate wealth and not do anything significant with it? I’m all about being entrepreneurial, creating something out of nothing, and being sustainable, but where’s the human perspective in all of this? Who’s in this audience of people you envision when you build a condo complex that most people can’t afford even at a baseline cost? These people always have an idea of who they want to attract, and who they want living in this building. We say diversity is our strength, but without any thought to this, we’re just kicking our diversity to who knows where.
I really feel lucky that we can talk not just about these kids and families getting displaced and rearranged throughout the city. We’re inviting counsellors and people who have some kind of say or sway to see the film, and hoping that people take these things in. The evidence has been there before, and we’re just another little piece of that, but the evidence is no longer enough! Take your five or ten million dollars and then maybe put one or two of that into thinking about how you can really make a change for a community for the better. There are places throughout Europe that have really interesting housing systems, but maybe it’s just the ego of our “humble Canadian-ness” that we’ll look at these ideas from around the world and then not implement them into ways that people can live and prosper.