Why this emotional doc about a community in crisis is told through the eyes of a young black girl

Filmmaker Charles Officer talks to Amanda Parris about the making of his award-winning documentary Unarmed Verses.

Charles Officer on the making of his award-winning documentary Unarmed Verses

Unarmed Verses is told through the eyes of Francine Valentine, a young girl living in Toronto's Villaways neighbourhood. (Courtesy of NFB)

The first time I watched Charles Officer's documentary, Unarmed Verses, I quietly wiped tears from my cheeks hoping the people sitting next to me in the Hot Docs cinema wouldn't be distracted by how emotional I was. The tears were not provoked by any particular moment but rather by the gentle beauty and treatment given to a community that felt incredibly familiar.

The timely story takes place in a Toronto Community Housing complex called Villaways. In the Leslie and Nymark area, the neighbourhood is the site of a massive revitalization project, and in the film, residents struggle to prepare for what's next.

Their homes will be demolished; their community will be dispersed. In a city obsessed with redevelopment, Unarmed Verses shifts the attention to those who become the collateral damage in the rush to revitalize.

Aerial view of Toronto's Villaways neighbourhood. (Courtesy of NFB)

Our guide through the film is Francine Valentine, an insightful, reflective and art-loving 12-year-old girl. In any other movie or TV show she would have been cast as the little sister to the big brother lead. But in Officer's documentary, Valentine is given centre stage, and the audience is invited to see the world through her eyes.

Originally, the idea for the project was sparked by George Zimmerman's acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The National Film Board invited Officer to consider the impact of this case as a launching pad for a film, but as he told me, his initial ideas transformed when he got to know the Villaways community — including Valentine, a young girl with a quietly captivating energy.

Full disclosure: Officer has been my friend for many years and I acted in a play that he directed. With Unarmed Verses returning to Toronto theatres this Friday, I called the filmmaker earlier this week to talk about the making of the documentary.

Here, he shares why he chose to tell the story of this neighbourhood — and how the emotional project has changed how he thinks about community revitalization.

Films that focus on communities like Villaways often choose an aesthetic of gritty realism. But your film was a quiet, poetic tribute. Why did you choose that type of aesthetic approach?

Yeah, the aesthetic approach was really critical for me. I was very sensitive to things I've seen before that have rendered communities similar to Villaways. [With] the Black Lives Matter momentum in Toronto and the United States, I really wanted to hone in and present what a black life mattering looks like, from the inside.

In order to do that, I felt like I had to just take time. We see a lot of films, in Canada and the United States, where we can watch young white children do nothing all day and [we] praise those sort of observational films. I really wanted to take a moment for the viewer to watch and pay attention. It also came from the quiet character of Francine who often goes unnoticed but has all these profound things to offer.

I thought I knew Toronto, and I thought I knew the hoods of Toronto, but I'd never heard of Villaways in my life. I'm curious about why you chose Villaways as the neighbourhood for the focal point of this film.

Amanda, you just answered the question. I didn't either. I  grew up hanging out in so many communities and I thought I had the city covered. So when [I told TIFF's youth engagement coordinator] Brigid Tierney about this project I was trying to do, she said, "I've got the perfect place."

I really wanted to hone in and present what a black life mattering looks like, from the inside.- Charles Officer, filmmaker

It's easy to miss this place because it's so off the beaten track. It's so isolated. I felt like there are more eyes on a larger community that people are aware of, so then let's see how people are being treated in the one that we don't hear about, that doesn't get a lot of press.

I read that you really wanted to tell a story that you don't see on the news and part of that decision making led you to switch the protagonist from a young man to Francine. Can you tell me about that desire and what that meant in the editing process? What was left in and what was left out?

I spent a year and a half in that community and there were two incidents that happened up there in that time that called for police involvement. Meanwhile there's this whole story about this community being abused in the process of revitalization.

I didn't want to go and show the one or two incidents [of] grit or the drama. I followed the young boy and he got into some incidents and I realized that that wasn't where I wanted to go because I've seen it.

I think the natural instinct for other dramatists would be — there's the drama. Let's follow that. I realized, where do we see the voice of the young black girl? I chose to go with the quiet, thoughtful individual who's trying to make it despite all this stuff happening all around.

Francine, what I realized early, when she starts doing something, whatever she's living, she's in that moment. It's something that you try to teach actors. Nothing else exists. She's just in her world. She is thorough and she's a thinker.

In this scene from Unarmed Verses, kids from the Villaways community participate in the Art Starts music program. (Courtesy of NFB)

One of the scenes that really stands out to me is when Francine's family is all eating dinner and they're so comfortable. It felt as though the camera was another member of the family rather than an external presence. How did you create a presence that Francine's family felt so comfortable with? And what did this mean logistically in terms of your crew?

I spent a lot of time with the family. I spent a lot of time with Francine and her grandmother who looks exactly like my grandmother and we just bonded immediately. She comes from the same place — she has Maroon blood. I think she recognized something in me, too.

Her father was very supportive of the project. I had to walk them through the filmmaking process. So there were things that weren't in the film but were necessary for them to get comfortable with what I was about to do and how they feel in front of a camera.

That family, they were just so welcoming and they understood what the intention was for this project. But they didn't know where it was going. They kept saying, "Is this gonna show up on YouTube?" And I'm like, "Well I have larger aspirations than YouTube, but yeah, it might!"

So when you went in, would it just be you and a camera?

We kept it a really tight small crew because I knew it had to be intimate. So I had a sound person and my cinematographer. If we had a camera assistant, they were always outside. So it would just be three of us in this space. Even our sound guy, he would mic Francine and he'd be down in the basement. Other than the drone shots and things like that, it was always very intimate and we only used one camera the whole time.

Francine and her Art Starts music teacher, Krystle Chance, in a scene from Unarmed Verses. (Courtesy of NFB)

At the opening I remember that you were really emotional. What was going on for you?

Oh my gosh. That was really intense.

Knowing that this project never would have happened if [the producer] Lea [Marin] didn't understand and see the value of telling this sort of perspective and putting the camera on someone like Francine. What it comes down to are the producers and executive producers who will champion a project to their higher ups.

Because Lea's a black woman, her understanding — that would never would have happened if it wasn't someone who could connect with that kind of experience. They would have probably steered me towards the boy who got in trouble with the police and was trying to find his way out of it, the typical sort of option. Well, this is another option.

How did making this film impact your own perspectives on the topic of revitalization?

Probably the biggest thing is that it made me sell my house and move to Regent Park.

In my head, I felt like I needed to be present in a community going through that process so that I can experience and see it and comment on it from the inside out.

When you're involved in these board meetings and you're privy to hearing how people are thinking and talking about the community, there aren't many people of colour in those rooms who are owners of property making decisions about this community now. It's very clear to me that people of colour in this city, especially black people who live in these communities, they have been neglected over decades.

There needs to be some sort of archive on how people are treated in that process. The neglect of something over so many years is why it has to be torn down. Organizations like Toronto Community Housing, if they're not going to acknowledge that there are improvements that need to be had in the way that you're dealing with human lives, then who are you serving? What are you doing?

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Unarmed Verses. Directed by Charles Officer. 86 min. To Oct. 11 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.


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