Under Surveillance: Mina Shum’s “Ninth Floor”

The story of the most dramatic and violent racial conflict in modern Canadian history.

22 mins read

We don’t want no racism
We don’t want apartheid oh no no
We don’t want no parshality yeah
So run come come
Stand up and chant it
— Israel Vibration

RECENTLY, SOCIAL ANALYSTS have floated the idea of an imminent post-racial society. Mixed relationships and marriages, once illegal in some places, have become more common. There may even be a widespread longing to merge with black identity, as exemplified by former NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s attempt to cross over. The argument goes that in America and elsewhere, skin colour and cultural differences will soon become irrelevant. While real change is happening, this argument is shaken by the persistence of vicious racial hatred. American cops, lunatics, and lunatic cops just can’t stop themselves from brutalizing black people. Routine traffic violations, noisy pool parties and giving a patrolman lip can lead to trauma and death. Meanwhile, red-state bureaucrats tamper with voting rights.

But at least blatant racism is visible. More insidious are subtle forms of bigotry now replacing the overt hatred identified with cliché “inbred redneck murder-boys,” as award-winning Jamaican novelist Marlon James (The Book of Night Women, A Brief History of Seven Killings) puts it. For James, what comedian Louis C.K. calls “mild racism”—the polite biases of people who believe they are progressive-minded—has always been there. “Hell, I grew up around some of those nice, paternalistic bigots right here in Jamaica. They fight for your right to vote but would never invite you home.”

In Ninth Floor, a feature-length doc produced by Vancouver NFB producer Selwyn Jacob and directed by Mina Shum, one of the film’s characters, Trinidadian Bukka Rennie, alludes to this brand of muted prejudice when he says, “Canadians are racist, but they like to apologize for being racists.” A country with a tiny black population compared to the U.S., Canada specializes in the kind of quiet discrimination now trending among savvy bigots, including white supremacists who favour coded language over hate talk.

A National Film Board of Canada production, Ninth Floor tells the story of the most dramatic and violent racial conflict in modern Canadian history. The film is a meticulously detailed mesh of archival material, some of it very rare, and present-day testimony from participants who talk intimately about the event, clearly still haunted by it.

Shum deploys unusual interview set-ups and evocative images that suggest the psychological states they are remembering—an expressionistic approach to documentary.

The 1969 Sir George Williams University Riot, unknown to most people today, was an ordeal comparable to the 1990 Oka Crisis, the terrifying standoff between Mohawks and the Quebec Provincial Police bolstered by the Canadian army. Another NFB film, Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, brilliantly documents that crisis, recently in the news again because of its 25th anniversary.

Ironically, the Sir George crisis erupted in a particularly liberal-minded and welcoming university. Before it amalgamated with Loyola University into Concordia, Sir George was a downtown Montreal facility with a freewheeling atmosphere that mashed up students from many origins and backgrounds. Bukka Rennie, who got caught up in the event, was amazed by the university’s pre-admission questions. He felt a warm, seemingly genuine interest in who he was as a seemed to be an open-minded wonderland, exemplified by Expo 67’s technicolour vision of The Family of Man.

Shum flashes back to the World’s Fair, Montreal’s Oz on the St. Lawrence River, a magical zone where you could eat Cuban ice cream, contemplate Hindu art, get mind-blown by the NFB’s experimental Labyrinth project, groove to Van Morrison and ride high on a sci-fi monorail.

The whole package got torn apart by sad reality, says Rodney John, a key figure during the crisis and another of Shum’s subjects. For John, it was “an error of judgment” to link the Expo pipe dream to an outsider’s actual experience of Canada. The country was not the available-to-all society it claimed to be. “The essential quality of the community,” says John, “was a coldness.” Shum highlights the perception with images of desolate streets, frozen pools of water, vacant subway stations and forbidding, Brutalist buildings, dwarfing her characters.

Simply renting an apartment was a big problem for recently arrived people from Trinidad, Saint Vincent, Guyana or Jamaica. Nobody waved shotguns or burned crosses in their faces, but various kinds of walls barred them from entry. Nobody told them to sit in the back of the bus, but they got looks saying that is where they belonged.

Anne Cools, who got arrested and locked up at the height of the confrontation between the university and mainly black students, was even more shocked by Canadian racism than John. Now a senator, Cools explains that she didn’t even think of herself as an immigrant when she arrived from Barbados. She saw herself as transitioning from one part of the Commonwealth to another with no concept of race.

The Sir George Williams University (SGWU) crisis began when a group of students lodged a complaint about one of their professors. Rodney John, Terrence Ballentyne, and Kennedy Frederick, who does not appear in the film because the events of 46 years ago spun him into ongoing psychiatric problems, were among six black students, mostly Trinidadians, who wrote a letter to the SGWU administration about biology professor Perry Anderson. They charged that he was deliberately giving them low grades (they excelled in other courses), and treating them with a condescending mock formality, addressing them as “Mister” while he called his white students by their first names.

Ninth Floor makes it clear that for the protestors, and for the film itself, Perry Anderson is almost incidental. The university’s reaction to the complaint, which reflected what people like John, Ballentyne, Fredericks and Cools were experiencing as immigrants, took on more weight than one teacher’s alleged biases.

In one of the doc’s pungent uses of archival footage, an SGWU administrator, Albert Jordan, displays his own probably unwitting condescension as he natters about black students.

“The manner of West Indians is somewhat more expansive than our own,” says Jordan. “They tend to speak with larger gestures, they tend to laugh, immoderately perhaps. The language is very picturesque, choice, frequently obscene.” Jordan’s 1969 discourse sounds like today’s blanket criticism of hip-hop culture, or recent objections to Kanye West performing at the Pan-Am games closing.

Reacting to the allegations against Anderson, SGWU set up a hearing committee that became compromised. The issue festered for months during tense negotiations. Deals on the verge of fruition were scuttled. In the film, Senator Cools recalls the students having a feeling of being taken for a ride on a roller coaster of high expectations and disappointments, apparent victory and then defeat. For Bukka Rennie, it seemed like trickery.

The students escalated their protests beyond rallies, speeches and occupying offices and lounges. The confrontation peaked with a spectacular takeover of the ninth-floor computer lab. Once the police riot squad showed up on the 13th day of the sit-in, occupiers showered the street below with thousands of computer punch cards. Then someone started a fire (to this day, nobody knows who), and the cops herded the students out, cracking skulls and screaming racist insults.

In the end, 97 students were charged with various offences, and many, including Anne Cools, did time. The most charismatic of the protest leaders, Rosie Douglas, was imprisoned for 18 months and then deported. A lifelong black power activist, Douglas became prime minister of his native Dominica eight months before his sudden, surprising death in 2000. Ninth Floor doesn’t dwell on Douglas, despite his electrifying presence during the protests because, Shum explains, “[w]e had to weigh carefully how much of what we told in the film.” It would have been easy to get lost in Douglas’s history.

Before the lab occupation, Kennedy Frederick was hit by a devastating charge of abduction, and Rodney John recalls being picked up by police, taken for a ride and ordered to stay away from the university. For the first time, John “felt afraid for [his] life.” A white protestor called Harvey Shacket recalls “the police calling black students the N-word and bitches.” After being dragged out of the lab, “[o]ne of the cops held a gun to my head and said that if any policemen or firemen were killed in this thing, they were going to put a bullet through our heads, throw us in the fire and no one would know what happened to us.” Like Robert Hubsher, the only white protestor highlighted in Ninth Floor, Shacket joined the protest because as a Jew, he empathized with people targeted for discrimination.

Mina Shum told POV during a recent interview that Selwyn Jacob brought her on board to direct Ninth Floor because of her work as a feature filmmaker (Double Happiness; Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity). He gave her licence to explore dramatic techniques that would pump up the story’s emotional power. Neither Shum nor the Caribbean-Canadian Jacob, who studied moviemaking at UCLA and has aspired to telling this story since he heard about the riot as a University of Alberta student, wanted the picture to merely preach to the choir. A producer (Mighty Jerome, The Road Taken) who encourages originality, Jacob deplores films that he considers “predictable and repetitive: interview followed by stock footage followed by interview followed by stock footage.”

Shum came up with a charged visual design favouring overheads, long shots, subjects seen as if looking through a window or from the vantage point of a security camera. Characters recall their 1969 ordeal in an abandoned factory the production rented, looking isolated in shots with hazy areas around the edges of the frame, and in exterior scenes, alone and apparently being watched. Ninth Floor recalls paranoid 1970s thrillers like All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

“I related to those films,” says Mina Shum, a child of immigrants from Hong Kong, “probably because of feeling like an outsider. It seemed really apt to apply that visual design to this film.” Shum adds that she has been “interested in the idea of surveillance in my fiction work.”

Preparing Ninth Floor, Shum “thought about exclusion and power, and how that really speaks to the heart of otherness and race; the disconnect between one human and another, regardless of colour, even. Surveillance is the perfect metaphor for that. I also thought of how broken-hearted people can be when they are rejected for the first time. That’s partly why there’s so much isolation in the film.”

The film, made for about $1 million, was shot in Montreal and Trinidad, home to many of the students. The desolate-looking Montreal interview set, “peppered with ’70s listening devices,” recalls Shum, evoked “a ghostly memory of how the people who lived through the crisis felt, their psychological state at the time. They were excluded. They were being watched. With the set design, I was trying to physicalize the things that isolated them then, including perspective.”

Cinematographer John Price filmed subjects recounting their stories through a Plexiglas window cut into a specially built flat. “We also went across the street into an artist’s loft to shoot building to building,” continues Shum. “We even chose older lenses to mimic that period.”

It was important for Shum and Jacob to include their characters in the process. “Selwyn and I would greet them and take them on a tour of the set. I would show them where the hidden cameras were, and I would explain why. Response to the set led to what one could call their ‘performance’ in the film.”

Watching the participants remembering their younger selves living through a nightmare 46 years ago, you go deep into character. Not just witnesses, they were “invited to a safe space, in a weird way, where they could reveal themselves.”

The revelations of innocence lost, disillusionment with Canada and the threat of being observed by eyes that stereotype and fear you play out like soliloquies and meditations. We see footage of the panic-driven chaos that exploded in 1969 juxtaposed with the sorrowful, bemused, ironic expressions of people remembering that they were toyed with and disrespected.

There were no Texas cops handcuffing them because they asserted their basic rights, but the principle was the same—the principle of slavery, or at least humiliating inequality. Shut up and do what you are told. You are a joke. “They tend to laugh, immoderately perhaps,” as that Sir George Williams University administrator assessed Caribbean students. At the height of the computer lab occupation, “Nigger Go Home” signs appeared, and the police made death threats. No more Expo fantasy of the brotherhood of man. Canada doesn’t really want you.

“We Canadians think that we are so progressive,” Shum says, “and kudos that we are trying. But the attitude toward race is, ‘We have multiculturalism, we are mandated.’ I think it’s Carl Jung who said that if you suppress something, it will manifest itself physically.” Violent acts flare up from repression.

The film “put[s] the audience in the position of the watcher,” says Shum. “We are peeking around corners, looking through a keyhole, there’s haze in front of us. We are constantly questioning who and what we are seeing.”

Conversely, in intense “close-ups of our participants, they look up at us,” says Shum. “For a split second the role is reversed.” Viewers, whether “people of colour, or not of colour, take a journey toward asking, ‘My God, have I ever done that? Actually, maybe I did.’” Shum believes that “if we can understand ourselves, we can grow to a place where we can understand each other better.”

Despite the optimism, Ninth Floor does not provide easy uplift any more than it solves the big mystery of the Sir George Williams University riot: Who started the fire?

But the movie does end on an inspiring idea, expressed by Hugo Ford, one of the occupiers. In a warm, green Trinidadian setting, Ford says that everyone is transient, passing through life, and understanding that frees you from fear that brings on oppression. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me,” says the late singer and equal rights activist Nina Simone in the new doc What Happened, Miss Simone? “No fear. I mean really, no fear.”

When Jacob and Shum approached potentially intriguing people to appear in the doc, some agreed, others said no, and still others needed coaxing. Through the sheer serendipity of interconnections between people, and even chance meetings, the gallery of participants came together.

It turned out that one of the film’s most compelling presences, Kennedy Frederick’s daughter Nantali Indongo, happens to live in Montreal. Idealistic like her father, she evokes his charismatic but tortured spirit. She also happens to be a member of Nomadic Massive, a hip-hop/world music crew whose members are from a range of backgrounds.

Ninth Floor closes on the group’s fierce rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” intercut with shots of some of the film’s characters gazing into the camera. Marley knew better than anyone that conflicts involving race and power may never go away. In 1976, in the kitchen of his Kingston, Jamaica home, at 56 Hope Road, Marley almost got murdered by shottas (gunslinging gangsters) working for powerful forces determined to silence him. But even the assassination attempt didn’t stop the singer from holding out the song’s hope in the face of hopelessness: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds.”

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