TIFF Review: ‘The Stairs’

TIFF 2016

6 mins read

The Stairs
(Canada, 95 min.)
Dir. Hugh Gibson
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


As someone who lives in Toronto’s East End, I’m constantly commuting past a stretch of Toronto that for generations has been a kind of forgotten area. Established as a form of community housing back when the thought was that neighbourhoods would flourish with closeness and lack of vehicular traffic, what transpired in Regent Park—like so many other failed experiments—was a form of ghettoization. It was easy to drive by and not think of the stories within those walls, the young immigrants or Canadians making a start from very little as well as those struggling with addiction or those trying to stay safe on the street as they engage in the oldest profession.

Inside one of those buildings is a dreary, white walled stairway that gives Hugh Gibson’s remarkable film its name. The Stairs overtly represents the urine soaked floors where one of the doc’s subjects found sleep and privacy to take his shot. It equally is a metaphor for the climb many of these individuals have to make to rise above their circumstances. The path up is hard and the stairs also lead downwards, making the journey anything but certain.

Gibson shot the film over many years, making the film all the more remarkable as it manages to craft a consistent and coherent arc while bouncing between narrative threads. As a work of journalism it’s quite effective, following stories too often ignored. But as cinema it’s equally effective, illustrating colourful characters with remarkable stories, none of whom easily conforms to a traditional heroic journey.

We see those that can’t get their shit together still finding time to help others out, witness the struggle of making things right when the compulsion to do wrong is at its highest. The film powerfully articulates why there are so few happy endings while never abandoning the aspects of storytelling that make such a journey come alive. This isn’t some aimless wander through the lives of these individuals. Gibson’s film is a nuanced and well-crafted journey, a promenade rather than a meander, serving as both witness to these people’s lives and providing a more universal articulation of the complexity of their situations.

Three long-time Regent Park denizens, Marty, Roxanne and Greg, are our tour guides for much of the journey, each undercutting our expectations of their behaviour. The interactions are, in the purest sense, human, with all the foibles and complexities built in. Shooting over a half-decade, Gibson allows us to see the transition in the lives of his documentary protagonists and the community surrounding them. As Regent Park underwent radical change, with machines chewing up what once were homes with brightly coloured walls telling stories of past generations, the film shows that although materially things are getting better, some community aspects of the district are slipping away. Once again, the stairs lead up, but they also lead down, and this duality causes one to vacillate between hope and despair.

At its heart, The Stairs provides an opportunity to showcase this important district in Toronto, providing a means to begin the conversation about just how myriad aspects of mental health, crime, police presence and addiction work within the urban setting. Executive produced by stalwart observational filmmaker Alan Zweig, Gibson’s own work stands favourably within the long tradition of probing, insightful works of documentary cinema in this country. For a first feature, The Stairs is extraordinary, and speaks to Gibson’s own tenacity and resourcefulness to let the story take him where it was meant to go, finding moments that illuminate the harsh but often beautiful reality of Regent Park and its citizens.

The Stairs is a film that should help to shape a changing vision of our city, which has been lauded for its generosity but is struggling to deal with contemporary challenges involving race, immigration and poverty. The film doesn’t offer a polemical position while offering a balanced account of the complex situation that is being dealt with in the newly gentrified Regent Park. The film allows us to see the long-standing members of the community. Their vision—flawed, frustrating at times, near angelic at others—provides a subtle, nuanced view of their part of this remarkable city.

The Stairs screens:
-Monday, Sept. 12 at 9:45 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
-Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 6:30 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Friday, Sept. 16 at 3:15 PM at Jackman Hall

TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.

Read more about The Stairs in the POV #103 feature ‘Neighbourhood Watch’!

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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