Documentary delves into West End through eyes of one family

Winnipeg's West End has its share of problems. A few years ago members of the Thomas family witnessed gang members run through their yard and murder a 16-year-old behind their house.

Global Justice Film Festival runs Nov. 1 and 2 at the University of Winnipeg

Brent Thomas in his backyard, from the film Life on Victor Street (Kirby Hammond)

Winnipeg's West End has its share of problems. A few years ago, members of the Thomas family witnessed gang members run through their yard and murder a 16-year-old behind their house. This event occurred at the time when Kirby Hammond was making his documentary, Life on Victor Street, about Brent Thomas and his father Fred.

Hammond spent two years researching the West End, then two years with Brent and Fred and their family to make the documentary. The film follows Brent and Fred as they try to make their way in this impoverished neighbourhood and struggle to stay away from violence and crime.

At the time of that murder, Hammond noticed that the debate that was going on was whether to put more police on the streets, or develop more programs for kids. "I was looking at this and said, 'well, everybody else is debating it, let's just listen to them.'"

Hammond met Brent when he was a member of the football team at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate. Members of the team were in the same demographic as those who were joining gangs and falling intro trouble. Some of the players were struggling to stay out of trouble and were good kids.

Hammond approached Brent on the football field and asked if he could go to his house and speak to him on camera. Brent agreed. "He was someone who was really shy on the football field, but when I went to his house and put the mic on and turned the camera on, he just opened up about everything that was going on him his life and everything that he was experiencing."

Brent's father Fred was the same, sharing stories of where he came from, his struggles on the reserve, overcoming his problems and bringing his family to Winnipeg and ultimately becoming a role model for his children.

"I realized they were wonderful people, so open and honest about their experiences," said Hammond.

He also gave them a camera  -- a diary cam -- so they could film whatever they wanted and share their thoughts at any time. Hammond mixed their footage in with his. "I was really trying, as much as possible, to give them a voice.

"We're seeing their lives, we're getting an understanding of some of the struggles they're up against and we're hearing through their words what they think they need to do to move on," he said.

Brent Thomas watches his old teammates from the sidelines (Kirby Hammond)
By the age of 12 and 13, some of Brent's friends were already in gangs, and a few years later they were all in gangs. Brent did join a gang for a time, tried to leave it, and succeeded for a time. But his father worried that he would slip back again.

"It's not obvious," said Hammond. "You can do what you like but if those are your main influences, then you're kind of stuck." 

Hammond hopes to paint an honest picture of the neighbourhood and the people who live there without focusing solely on the dark side. "It's an area with a lot of conflict and a lot of negativity around it, but there are so many beautiful and positive things. My goal was to tell a positive story."

"It was an important film for me to make."

The Global Justice Film Festival features more than 20 films and takes place November 1 and 2 at the University of Winnipeg. Life on Victor Street will be screened on Nov. 2 at 4:15 in Room 1L13 (Lockhart Hall), 515 Portage Ave.


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