Why I direct: Charles Officer

The Canadian filmmaker known for Mighty Jerome and The Skin We're In is screening his latest film, Unarmed Verses, at Hot Docs.
(Justin Morris)

"We all have a voice, we just have to find different ways to use them."

This line is uttered by Francine Valentine, the 12-year-old girl who is the focal point of Charles Officer's latest film, Unarmed Verses, which premiered at the Toronto International Hot Docs Festival earlier this week. The film tells the story of the Villaways public housing area in Toronto, which is facing imposed relocation, and how Francine, a shy, yet wise young girl, expresses herself through poetry and music in the Art Starts program amidst her community's upheaval.

It's the latest film from Officer, who is known for documentaries such as Mighty Jerome, the NFB feature on Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome, the recent CBC documentary The Skin We're In, and the drama feature Nurse.Fighter.Boy, which garnered 10 Genie nominations in 2008.

We spoke to Officer about the themes and motivations behind his larger body of work.

Del Cowie, q digital staff

"I'm trying to present some things we don't know about. I'm not trying to make films about things we can find out on Wikipedia or find out online. I want to create films and work and things that are going to be added to those search engines, you know what I mean?"

"It really essentially comes down to the fact that there are voices we've heard before, but they are voices that aren't really provided space, and that's also based on your cultural background, it's based on your economic level of life you're living in. There's a stigma attached to kids of colour who grow up in [public] housing and they are trying to find a sense of pride within where they live and there's also a system in place that doesn't allow that pride to really flourish. I really, really wanted this film to allot them space and for them to be viewed with their voices. No statistics, no experts. All that other stuff you can find in other places."

"I'm trying to look at small and minute things that are more personal or whatever and reveal them as these larger, life-changing decisions that get overlooked based on making money. How do we get back to humanity within our culture, within black films, within black characters that I've seen?"

"There is a deep history in this country. I found out about [the razing of] Africville when I was 19 years old. And I was pissed. I found out about Harry Jerome 'cause I was invited on a date to the Harry Jerome Awards. I didn't know who the hell he was!"

"And the next thing you know, by the serendipitous way of things, I was asked to do a film about him and I was like, 'Hell yeah!' because it hasn't been done; it hasn't been documented and the more time goes it's like these things didn't exist. So yeah, I'm trying to build to that archive of our existence in this country and on this continent and throughout, and the human struggles. That is really the goal. And if there's space for films like Dumb and Dumber, no disrespect, then there's definitely space for stories like this."


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