(Canada, 85 min.)
Dir. Charles Officer
The thought experiment called the ship of Theseus asks if a boat remains the same if one removes all of its boards and nails and replaces them with new ones. The question pertains to any physical structure that carries intangible elements within it that are essential to its identity. Are they ephemeral things like memory and meaning?
Toronto has many vessels of this nature in the ever-changing housing communities that fall only to rise as something new. Villaways, for example, saw a forced exodus of its residents over the past year, but the spirit of the housing community endures in Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, which won the prize for Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs earlier this year. This significant and unsentimental production from the NFB looks at the community north of 401 as it faced an impending “revitalization project” (re: gentrification) in 2015. The time in which Officer documents Villaways anticipates the impoverished buildings of the housing community being demolished and “rejuvenated” as swanky condominiums mixed with community housing units. The residents featured in the film learn that they could return if they chance their luck on a lottery, but the sentiments Officer captures show that one can’t go home again after being uprooted even temporarily. [Read more on Unarmed Verses in the feature ‘Neighbourhood Watch’.]
Just take the young woman through whose eyes Officer lets audiences see Villaways in transition. Francine Valentine, 12 years old at the time of filming, is the film’s shy and resilient guide to the community. Officer takes the camera into Francine’s home and shows the audience the range of essential supports she receives from her neighbours.
Francine explains in voiceover that she came to Canada at the age of four after leaving Antigua because her father wanted her to have a better education. She lives in Canada with her dad and her grandmother while her mother, estranged to the family by the long distance and years apart, remains at home. Francine quietly thrives in the neighbourhood as she takes a keen interest in her studies, particularly exercises involving languages and literature, and makes the most of the opportunities her family hoped she would receive.
Unarmed Verses doesn’t opt for interviews as Officer follows Francine through her studies, home life, and extracurricular activities. The director employs a loosely-verité style, since the camera doesn’t try to be a fly on the wall or be an invisible presence in the lives of these young students. Rather, Officer’s camera is like an active and interested observer. He really wants the audience to experience a few days in the lives of young Villaways residents. The depth of focus immerses viewers in the relationships and dynamics of the community.
Francine is a soft-spoken guide, but Officer captures her at a pivotal moment in which she finds her voice and confidence. Words prove especially powerful for Francine as she tells the audience a little bit about herself in voiceover that offers snippets of poetry. Francine has a strong grasp for language and the documentary shows her nurturing her talent in Toronto’s Arts Starts program where she joins several of her peers in developing skills in rhythm and poetry. She observes friends and mentors expressing themselves behind a microphone and creating powerful poems about being Black in Toronto. The effect of the opportunity is palpable for participants of all ages.
While Francine has a grasp for language that she demonstrates very well with a sharp reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat early in the film, there’s something very powerful about watching her come into her own by developing a distinct voice, rhythm, and syntax to articulate her experiences. One particularly strong scene sees a school tour at the Art Gallery of Ontario where Francine looks deeply and inquisitively at the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. See identifies with the scratches and ruptures of anger that tear across the canvas with vivid hunger. As she articulates her interpretations of some very complicated works of art, Francine proves herself wise beyond her years.
Francine’s personal relationship to the language of her community becomes essential as the plans for the redevelopment of Villaways become prominent in the film. Francine attends community meetings with her grandmother, but the institutional jargon used by city planners leaves the future rather opaque. It’s very hard to grasp what awaits this community through the convoluted explanations offered in the city planning sessions.
The repercussions of gravy train era politics become all too clear in Unarmed Verses as Officer’s film considers the lives scattered by impersonal city planning. Officer finds in Francine an intimate and accessible character with whom to see an impoverished community that doesn’t gain attention through shootings or underdog basketball team stories. Without anything sensational, these kids live day by day in a pocket of the city that feels the repercussions of decisions made by outsiders. The film shows how proper support and community based initiatives foster young minds and bolster confidence. As Unarmed Verses invites us to witness Francine’s growth as a poet and artist during a short period of time, it teaches us the essential role of community in shaping a city’s future.
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VIFF runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.
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Unarmed Verses opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, Oct. 6.