Meet Raymond Martin, or Ray, as everybody calls him. Ray lives in Toronto. The closest thing to a fixed address that Ray has is the intersection of Lakeshore Boulevard and Jameson Avenue in Toronto’s east end. It’s where he panhandles daily.
Director Michael Del Monte, following up his popular Hot Docs Audience Award winner Transformer, profiles Ray in a sobering character study. His Name Is Ray draws inspiration from a decision that Del Monte made while encountering—or, more accurately, ignoring—Ray while driving through the intersection during his daily commute. Many people employ the same strategy: checking their phones, fumbling with the radio, or looking the other way when someone like Ray knocks on their window. His Name Is Ray shares what happens when one stops to see the human being on the other side of the glass.
Del Monte observes Ray throughout his days in Toronto’s east end. Ray hustles for change and amasses a steady stream of Toonies during the peak commutes. He navigates the question of shelter, homelessness, and rootlessness as the film sees him set up camp in various pockets of the neighbourhood, moving from time to time depending on the patience of the local police officers. Sometimes, shelter comes in creative places, like an accessible crawlspace in a parking façade. Other days, Ray might share his prime panhandling real estate with a friend, only to see a kind motorist hand her twenty dollars.
His Name Is Ray observes the day-in and day out routine Ray experiences. The film shows frankly the hunger that fuels Ray’s cyclical existence: he’s an addict. Heroin and alcohol are his drugs of choice, although Ray isn’t one to discriminate. Del Monte’s all-seeing camera objectively captures Ray’s struggle. Fentanyl inevitably finds its way to Ray’s hands, which brings a dire omen, but also situates this story as simply one narrative among many in a growing public health crisis. Ray’s addiction also fuels the film’s central drama when $700 owed to a dealer goes missing and Ray tries to reconcile the situation while wondering who might have pinched his stash.
Del Monte films Ray at his best and his worst. There are moments of jarring incoherence, but also scenes of great lucidity. The approach is frank and fair, as Del Monte obviously doesn’t exploit his subject no matter how difficult the footage may be. Rather, the film holds the lens close to a matter that most audiences can afford to overlook. The film is a humanizing character study that puts a face on the opioid crisis. Shooting the film solo, Del Monte gains impressive access and develops a tangible connection to his subject. On one hand, Ray is probably just very lonely, but he also has a story to tell. His Name Is Ray learns about the challenges that transplant a former sailor from the waters of the Maritimes to the sidewalks of Toronto, living hand to mouth by the lake where the sailboats are always in view. He has a life and a family he had to leave behind.
As a portrait, His Name Is Ray is especially striking with its starkly composed widescreen framing. One doesn’t usually find such elevated aesthetics in tales of the streets. Neither elevating nor romanticizing its subject, the handsomely composed portrait simply tells audiences that Ray deserves their time and respect. Toronto’s iconic cityscape is always in view as Ray runs from car to car or counts his change by the curb, reminding Toronto audiences that this hits close to home. The film features interviews with some of the faces who work the streets alongside Ray or struggle with the same challenges. This is Ray’s story, though, and the film tells it with refreshing sobriety. Del Monte doesn’t ask Ray to stand in for an entire “community,” but rather situates one tale within a larger collection of untold stories.
His Name Is Ray streams via Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema through May 27.