This powerful film moves beyond the statistics to show the human cost of gun violence
A new documentary tells the story of a Toronto woman who had to bury three of her children
Attending funerals is always difficult, but the ones held for those taken violently sit differently within my memories. The anguish is palpable and the air is thick with emotion. Nothing feels final and disbelief reigns inches from the coffin, the hardwood and satin interiors the only tangible evidence that this moment is real, is here. Despite the flood of emotions, there is an overwhelming veil of numbness that presides — an almost haunting sense that the true mourning that sits within a deep well of pain has not yet arrived. Those are my relatively distant experiences attending the funerals of former students, former classmates and acquaintances who were taken suddenly and violently, years before anyone around them was ready to say goodbye. But as filmmaker Karen Chapman reminded me, there is no singular process for grieving. It differs for everyone.
Chapman's short film Walk Good (produced by CBC Short Docs) explores the story of Carol Roache, a woman from Toronto who had to bury all three of her children — Crystal, Yannick and Jamal — in separate incidences of gun violence. The magnitude of what Ms. Roache has endured feels inconceivable. To lose three of one's children outside the context of war or natural disaster, living in a city purported to be one of the safest in the world, is incomprehensible. And yet, Ms. Roache sits in the film composed, wiping silent tears, slowly and steadily telling her story to the camera. It is a tragic reminder of the reservoir of strength so many black women are celebrated for — a strength that allows many to forget their humanity, a strength that should never need to be called upon.
Police statistics reveal that fatal shootings in Toronto increased 200% in the first four months of 2016 compared to the same time last year. Although occupying news headlines in the immediate aftermath, few media outlets return to the story after the yellow tape has been taken down. It is rare to hear what happens to a family and community after the tragedy. For Chapman, this was where she wanted to focus her attention: "I wanted to create something that sat in the world of resonance, in the world of the after."
"I was 18 when Crystal Roache was killed," Chapman told me during a phone interview earlier this week. "She was 18 as well. It was a real shock amongst my friends and I because we just realized that the violence was this close."
Despite that realization, there was a part of Chapman that still viewed it as something that happened to other people. This is a coping strategy shared by many of us; we read a headline that shocks and shakes us, but in order to move through our days we don't linger in that emotional register. The feelings get compartmentalized and put away. However, tragedy soon came knocking at Chapman's own door — and the reality of it changed her entire life.
"It wasn't until my father was murdered that it kind of brought the realization home that there's no one that's untouchable when it comes to this type of violence and these types of issues. That was the reason I wanted to make films like this — because I have an understanding of the aftermath of the violence, of these things that tear families apart. What happened with my dad shattered my family for a very very long time and [we're] still learning how to deal with that loss."
Chapman reached out to Carol Roache just weeks after her last son Jamal was killed in 2014. They spent a year and a half building a relationship before filming began because building a basis of trust was imperative for Chapman.
I don't propose to have any answers, but I'm just hoping to ask the right questions and get people thinking and hopefully get people angry enough to stop being so complacent.- Karen Chapman
"That was important for me because, especially as a black creator, I'm always trying to think about the gaze and what the camera can do," Chapman tells me. "It can 'other' what we're looking at, and I wanted to create something that was a little bit different, that was a little bit nuanced and quieter. It was really important to allow Carol to speak for herself and have her tell her own story, and for us to kind of bear witness to that. Just the bravery in her, her resistance, her resilience — being able to go out in the world and smile at people, just interact with people on that level alone is something that is really inspiring to me."
Chapman is continuing a tradition of black Canadian female filmmakers who have used the medium of documentary to tell important stories about Canada. Filmmakers like Claire Prieto, Sylvia D. Hamilton, Jennifer Hodge de Silva and Alison Duke have made documentaries that challenge and reshape the narrative of this country's national identity, often inserting difficult and frequently silenced narratives into the limelight. When I asked Chapman what Walk Good is trying to say about Canada as a nation, she paused to reflect for a moment.
"It speaks to the dual realities that we live in, that I live in. The fact that something like gun violence disproportionately affects my community says something about Canada. It says something about housing; it says [something] about opportunities. We don't overtly say that in the film, but I think our audience can see that. Carol came here from Jamaica for the same reason my parents and so many families come to Canada: for a better life for their children. The idea that you can pick yourself up and go somewhere else in hopes of having a better future, somewhere like Canada that prides itself on having a safe and welcoming environment, and have all three of your kids be shot and killed in three separate incidents...it says something."
Walk Good is a quiet film. A scene of a solitary toothbrush dangling from a holder with three empty openings is what made the tears tumble from my eyes. As Roache shares her story, there are images of an urban landscape that is rarely still and yet seems in a state of perpetual suspense. Within the subdued movements captured in the empty swing at a park and the sparse subway corridor, there is a sense of haunting that permeates.
Chapman assembled an all-female crew for the film, explaining that she was searching for a depth of emotional sensitivity, care and consideration in the creation process. "It's been a challenge just making sure that we told a story that was one of dignity," she tells me. She is unapologetic in her hopes for its release: "I no longer have the fear of trying to reach everyone and speak to everyone because I feel like if you watch the film and you are moved by it, then it's for you. If you don't watch it and you're not moved by it and you've walked away with the same feelings and perceptions that you had, then the film is not for you."
Chapman says that when Roache saw the film for the first time, she smiled. The knowledge that the film has brought some comfort is an affirmation of Chapman's efforts. "I don't propose to have any answers, but I'm just hoping to ask the right questions and get people thinking and hopefully get people angry enough to stop being so complacent."
Walk Good is available to stream anytime on CBC Short Docs.