How making a film about the Bruce McArthur killings led me to Turkey

We can honour the lives of those who were lost by listening to those who are still in being persecuted and still in hiding. Michael Del Monte, director Village of the Missing

I was drinking a beer in a smoke-filled room in Denizli, Turkey, with more than a dozen LGBTQ refugees from Iran. The men and women I was with were sitting in a state of limbo, awaiting their fate, to find out if they would be accepted as refugees into Canada.

They had told their families that they’d gone to Turkey for work or school. In reality, they were desperately fleeing life-threatening persecution in Iran because they are gay. Many of them had been “stuck” in Turkey for as long as five years and were still in danger as the country had started to crack down on its own LGBTQ community. 

So how did the CBC Docs POV film Village of the Missing, about a serial killer in Toronto, lead me here, half a world away?

The answer is not simple.

Most of McArthur’s victims were immigrants or refugees

For six months, I had been following the story that a serial killer had taken the lives of eight men from Toronto’s LGBTQ community, The Village.

The oddity of this case, largely reported, is that six of the killer’s eight victims were of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. A ninth victim, also reportedly of Middle Eastern descent, was saved by police on the day of the killer’s arrest. What has not been explored, despite the hundreds of newspaper articles and TV reports, is why this maniac targeted refugees and immigrants. Was there a reason these people were more vulnerable in the Church-Wellesley area of Toronto?

As my producers and I started to scratch the surface, we discovered that the answer was a resounding yes. The Village, where an often-marginalized group of people have lived for decades, also contained a sub-group of people that seemed to be even more marginalized. The “missing of the missing,” one might say.

Our goal was to tell their story — without the sensationalism that was exploding around this case.

Exposing a hidden problem in The Village

Answers began to emerge when my field producer, Kevin O’Keefe — an esteemed journalist — and I travelled a couple of blocks west of The Village to meet a man named Arsham Parsi.

Unable to return to his home in Iran, Parsi has been living in The Village area for 15 years. He explained how he has never felt fully welcomed by the LGBTQ community because he’s brown and that he has never been welcomed by the Iranian community because he’s gay.

As Parsi spoke, I listened and tried to understand how complicated it must be for someone who is LGBTQ, coming from a country like Iran, to actually feel at home — even in a place like Toronto. As Arsham told me again and again: “The question isn’t whether they should kill you for being gay [in Iran], it’s whether they should kill you by throwing you off a building or throwing you off a cliff.”

Our approach to this story was born in that conversation with Parsi. We decided to use Village of the Missing to reveal a profoundly bigger and more troubling problem that exists in our world.

Over the next several months we uncovered a fascinating and largely untold story about The Village and the people who end up living there. As we discovered at one of our early screenings, it was a story unfamiliar even to long-term members of Toronto’s LGBTQ community.

A way to honour the victims

I think people who see the film will see a world they won’t recognize — a perspective we hope will open the eyes of not only citizens of Toronto and its police force, but also the LGBTQ community itself.

When first agreed to make this documentary, I was reluctant because I wasn’t keen to make a film about a serial killer. But while sitting in that room in Turkey with those men and women, I saw a bigger purpose for this story. Whether in Turkey or Canada, we can honour the lives of those who were lost by listening to those who are still being persecuted and still in hiding.

Watch Village of the Missing on CBC Docs POV.